Training For The Future. Contestants ply their construction expertise at SkillsUSA's national championship in Kansas City, which last week drew more than 15,000 attendees.
Photos: SkillsUSA Training For The Future. Contestants ply their construction expertise at SkillsUSA's national championship in Kansas City, which last week drew more than 15,000 attendees.

Chase Bateman has worked in the oil fields of Wyoming and for a building products distributor. But his real love is building houses. Bateman worked on a framing crew after he finished high school. And his goal after he graduates from Salt Lake Community College in Utah is to start his own construction business. The 26-year-old Bateman took another step in that direction last week, when he won the post-graduate-level carpentry competition at SkillsUSA’s national championship at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo.

The $35 million event—funded entirely by industry donations—drew 5,767 contestants for 94 competitions and a total of 15,000 attendees, the biggest numbers in the organization’s history. Some 1,100 companies and trade associations, including NAHB, were involved at the championship as judges, exhibitors, and—perhaps most important—recruiters. “Employers today are being very selective, and they want the total package,” says Tim Lawrence, SkillsUSA’s executive director. “We have a poster whose theme is ‘There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be Skilled.’ That means technical, academic, and employability skills. That’s the edge we bring to the table.”

Katie Grimnes, president of SkillsUSA’s national high school division, adds that the organization “gives students an immeasurable amount of confidence.” On a personal level, the 18-year-old Grimnes, who recently graduated from Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Md., with a specialty in industrial engineering, says that her involvement in SkillsUSA “made me passionate about what I was going to do” at a time when she was losing interest in school. Grimnes has applied for an apprenticeship to become an electrical linesperson, and she wants to focus on working in storm-affected areas.

The Leesburg, Va.–based organization, which was founded under the name Vocational Industrial Clubs of America in 1966, currently has 13,000 school chapters and 14,500 affiliated instructors. (Grimnes says her instructor at Weatherwax oriented his courses around the national competition.) Its championship keeps expanding at such a rate that, in 2014, it will relocate from Kemper, where it’s taking up 1 million square feet, to the 1.7-million-square-foot convention center in Louisville, Ky.

While the attendees at last week’s championship included many of the country’s leading commercial and residential contracting firms, not one home builder was registered, according to Lawrence. The absence of builders raises questions about whether an aging housing industry is overlooking a vibrant source of trained and aspiring talent to fill the next generation of trades and operational personnel. There is already real concern in some quarters that home building is not attracting nearly enough younger people, and that when market conditions improve there could be a serious shortage of skilled labor available for residential construction.

“We need the Pultes and Lennars of the world to get more involved in events and programs like this,” says Alexander. He notes that one of the biggest competitions at the championship is called Teamwork, where a mason, electrician, carpenter, and plumber work together to build a quarter of a house during the event. The team is judged, in part, on how well they present their plan to complete the project.

Despite the current weak housing market, the championship drew its share of contestants who say they plan to become home builders. Jaren O’Farrell’s interest in carpentry came from his father, who did it as a hobby. The 18-year-old O’Farrell—who started out building dog houses with his friends—is currently working on a framing crew in Utah and will enter a local community college’s construction program this fall. He says he “definitely” wants to focus on residential construction in his career.

Bateman says the contestants he competed against at the SkillsUSA championship were “at a very high level.” The contest he won—which would probably challenge some seasoned professionals—involved framing a mini house with metal and wood studs, building walls with window and door holes, and assembling trusses and stick-built hip rafters. The contestants got to look at the plans for only 30 minutes and had to complete the project in eight hours.

Bateman says he prefers residential work, which he sees as being “more personal” than commercial building. But he doesn’t think he’ll confine himself to new-home construction and would consider working in remodeling or handyman work, too.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Kansas City, MO, Salt Lake City, UT.