Grand County High School graduates Ryan Reed and Grace Osusky competed for national awards in speaking and mathematics at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference on June 25-29 in Louisville, Kentucky. [Photo by Hank Postma]

Two recent graduates from Grand County High School (GCHS) participated in a national competition hosted by the SkillsUSA organization in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 25-29.

Thousands of students from all over the country met at the event to compete in 99 categories. Grace Osusky and Ryan Reed, both from Moab, competed respectively in extemporaneous speaking and related technical math, which means solving real-world problems like figuring out how many tiles one should order to cover a specified area. Both students reflected positively on the event.

“I have to say that it was a ton of fun,” Reed said of the competition. “I met so many cool people.”

Osusky’s response was similar.

“Overall, my experience was a pretty darn good one,” she said. “I had a lot of fun and met some cool people. It was my first year participating in SkillsUSA, but if I had to go back in time and repeat 12th grade, I would do it again.”

SkillsUSA is “a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce,” according to the organization’s website. SkillsUSA advisors help students learn technical, marketable career skills, while also developing their leadership abilities.

Mike Rowe, host of the TV show “Dirty Jobs,” is a supporter of the program. In an interview with Fox News, Rowe called the SkillsUSA competition “the greatest kept secret in the history of skilled labor.”

The organization is not nearly as well-known as, for example, the Boy Scouts of America, but it has a substantial membership, with nearly 400,000 members nationwide.

Rowe believes SkillsUSA participants are preparing to fill what he refers to as a “skills gap” in the national workforce — a lack of workers qualified to perform skilled labor that does not require a four-year college degree. At the same time, kids who don’t plan on attending a four-year college can acquire expertise that can secure them high-paying, stable jobs.

“It’s got to be skill, and it has got to be opportunity, and it has got to be ambition — those things are still for sale,” said Rowe in the interview.

At GCHS, SkillsUSA falls under the career and technical education (CTE) department, which covers a broad range of subjects.

“[CTE] is kind of a catch-all of a lot of different stuff,” said Hank Postma, the department chair of CTE at GCHS. “Like health sciences, automotive, wood, IT, engineering — a lot of different career preparation programs.”

Likewise, SkillsUSA at the national level encompasses many fields, including welding, cosmetology, computer programming, architectural drafting and restaurant service.

To enter the national event, students must win first place in their subject at their state championships. Eighteen students from GCHS attended the Utah State Championship this year, competing in 13 categories. Osusky and Reed made it to the national round.

Each event is formatted according to the subject.

Reed’s exam was a written test with 50 questions.

“Basically, the hardest math test you’ll ever take,” said Postma, who serves as the SkillsUSA advisor at GCHS and accompanied the students to Louisville.

In the speaking competition, each student is evaluated individually.

“They’re given a show-up time,” Postma explained. “They show up, they’re let in to a room, they’re given their topic and five minutes to prepare, and then they have to give a five- to seven-minute speech.”

The topic given was “How does SkillsUSA train students to be leaders?”

Osusky said that after she had reached so far in the competition, she was no longer nervous.

“I walked into that finals room smiling,” she said, “because I knew there were people out there supporting me when I needed it most, like my advisors, from hundreds of miles away, my parents and friends, and there was no better feeling than knowing no matter what happened, they were proud of me.”

Osusky won third place in her subject at the national championship.

Though advocates like Mike Rowe emphasize opportunities the program provides for non-college-bound students, SkillsUSA also explicitly caters to those planning to attend a four-year university.

“In fact,” the SkillsUSA website reads, “college-bound students can get job experiences to help them define their career plans, identify an appropriate course of study and help pay for tuition.”

Osusky and Reed both plan to pursue academic degrees at four-year colleges.

Osusky will begin classes at the University of Utah in the fall, and will compete on the school’s debate team. She plans to study political science, journalism and at least one foreign language (maybe two).

“Eventually, I want to go on to be a human rights lawyer,” Osusky said of her long-term career plans. “There’s a lot of bad stuff that goes on in the world where people don’t have a voice. I’d like to give them a shot at a better quality of life for them and their children. We’re all humans here. It’s high time we start treating other human beings like actual human beings.”

Reed is also enrolled in a four-year college starting in the fall.

“I’m going to New Mexico Tech to study physics — which is going to use a little bit more complicated math, but that’s right up my alley,” he said. Reed has been taking advanced math courses throughout high school, and passed two “Advanced Placement” tests for Calculus I and II, which can translate to college credits.

Even in his free time, Reed enjoys tinkering with mathematics.

“I try to solve problems which are way over my head, because even though I might not even get close to solving them, I definitely learn stuff along the way,” he said.

Beyond college, he is interested in the field of astrophysics, but he hasn’t nailed down specifics.

“They’re a little hazy, but so far,” he said of his career plans, “everyone tells me that ideas change in college.”

Nearly all of the students involved in SkillsUSA at GCHS are planning to attend, if not college, some kind of post-secondary training, said Postma. That might be a two-year degree or certificate from an “area technical college,” with training focused on a specific career.

Postma was an active member of SkillsUSA when he was a student at Dixie College and then Southern Utah University, and won medals at both state and national competitions.

“It really helped me do some cool things,” Postma remembered.

Now he helps to bring similar opportunities to students in Moab.

“I think it’s a great experience, and I’ve had students who have really blossomed through doing it,” Postma said.

GCHS graduates Grace Osusky and Ryan Reed traveled to Louisville for competition aimed at solving real-world problems

“I walked into that finals room smiling because I knew there were people out there supporting me when I needed it most, like my advisors, from hundreds of miles away my parents and friends, and there was no better feeling than knowing no matter what happened, they were proud of me.”