BANGOR, Maine — At first glance Friday morning, it appeared as though firefighters were aggressively maneuvering to deal with a problem on the roof of the United Technology Center on Hogan Road.
In actuality, the firefighters were students taking part in just one trial of the annual SkillsUSA competition, a statewide matchup of Maine’s most gifted vocational and technical students.
Both secondary and postsecondary students from 24 career and technical education centers across Maine were facing off for a chance to win gold and move on to a national competition in Kansas this June. There, winners will represent the states in their respective skills.
Friday’s competitions pitted students against each other in their fields of study. More than 800 competitors participated in events meant to mimic real-life problems and tasks the students will face in industries such as Web design, culinary arts, 3-D animation, robotics, carpentry, automotive repair and firefighting, to name just a few.
“There’s a lot of talent coming to Bangor. These kids are the cream of the crop,” Thomas Jones, a retired professor from Pennsylvania State University and a former teacher in the Vassalboro area, said earlier this week.
Jones’ comments reflected the excitement that surrounds what participants at Friday’s events call the state’s biggest vocational competition.
In addition to the United Technology Center, Eastern Maine Community College and the Penobscot Jobs Corps also held matchups. Nate Guindon, a state officer with SkillsUSA in charge of overseeing and coordinating Friday’s events and also a student himself at the Maine Region Ten Technical High School in Brunswick, said competitions are so diverse that three facilities are almost always required in order to provide all the necessary equipment and space needed.
The SkillsUSA organization in Maine is apart of a national partnership of students, teachers and companies who work together to prepare vocational students for careers in their fields of study. Those who participated in the statewide event on Friday had competed previously in regional competitions near their hometowns. After winning there, they traveled to Bangor with their families and friends for an event that began on Thursday and ended with Friday’s competition and an award ceremony in the evening.
At Thursday’s banquet, Gov. Paul LePage sent a signed proclamation declaring March 10 SkillsUSA Day and recognizing the group as Maine’s largest student-run organization, according to Guindon.
But the real excitement got under way on Friday, as those students participating showcased a wide array of skills.
“It was awesome,” said Tom Vannah of Waldoboro after watching his son go head-to-head in the 3-D animation competition at the United Technology Center. “This challenges the kids to look toward the future and prepare themselves for the real world.”
Vannah’s son was guiding a small robotic arm by computer through a simulated vein to remove cancerous cells.
Outside, those competing in the firefighting aspect of the SkillsUSA competiton were dragging ladders from a firetruck and raising them onto a roof, which requires attention to detail, especially if a fire has broken out or a victim will be transported the same way, said the contestants.
Other events included carpentry, which featured students constructing mock housing frames. Nearby, plumbing and heating students were busy soldering joints and hooking up water heaters and boilers.
“I came out on top [in the regional competition] and that’s why I’m here. I guess I won’t know how I did until tonight, but I’m confident,” said Caleb Gervais, a senior student from the Capitol Area Technical Center in Augusta after lamenting that he didn’t have the proper parts for his competition.
Guindon said the automotive and firefighting competitions have become very popular in recent years.
At the automotive matchup, also at the United Technology Center, donated cars could be seen with fresh coats of paint, and students carried out fixes on a number of different models.
Students in each field were judged by industry professionals and educators. For instance, a state trooper was on hand to judge work in the crime scene investigation field. Guindon said some matches were timed and winners were decided by a number of criteria, depending on the occupational fields students were vying in.
Last year, a student representing Maine at the national competition won gold in the computer maintenance technology field.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Vannah, speaking of his son’s chances to win in the 3-D animation field. “Everyone here is very, very skilled.”