Early one morning last June, Alice Greene and Axel Holt boarded a flight from Moline to Atlanta. If the two Galesburg freshmen were giddy with nervous excitement, they had good reason.
They were headed to the SkillsUSA National Championships to compete against thousands of their peers from career technical education programs across the country. At the end of five days, they flew home with real-world skills, newfound confidence, and the drive to do even better next time.
Alice and Axel aren’t the only students in the region who are excited about the opportunity to practice technical skills and explore career paths. The Galesburg Area Vocational Center (GAVC) has seen a 60 percent increase in enrollment from last year, and participation in the local SkillsUSA program, which was established at GAVC in 2022, has nearly tripled in that same time. In its first year, the program was made possible thanks to resources from the City of Galesburg, while for the next two years Galesburg Community Foundation will continue to fund it.
“That growth is evidence of the need—and that this is money well spent,” says Adam Seaney, GAVC’s director. “We’ve learned that four-year college is not for everybody, and it doesn’t have to be. Everything we do here is from the standpoint of high-skill, high-wage, high-demand careers.”
According to Ken Springer, president of the Knox County Area Partnership, a growing interest in career technical education is a positive signal in a region where the loss of large manufacturers over the last generation has left today’s employers short of the workers needed to fill available jobs. “We’re trying to rebuild our economy on the strength of workforce, and in the last five years we’ve made a concerted effort to get the message out about vocational training,” he says. “SkillsUSA is another way of spotlighting the importance of technical education and celebrating who we are as a community.”
GAVC has invested in a state-of-the-art facility where students from eight area schools can enjoy hands-on training and instruction in a wide variety of skills, from automotive technology and early childhood education to law enforcement and web development.
Alice and Axel recently qualified for their second year at nationals and will be accompanied by three other GAVC qualifiers. As they prepare for the competition, the two sophomores are also looking further ahead, and they both see the lasting value of competing in SkillsUSA.
“It’s a huge opportunity for when you’re older,” says Alice. “You can find out what you want to do in your career, and you can meet people who will be good connections.”
“For career technical education, this is our varsity,” says Seaney. “Students get to take all the skills they’ve learned and use them to compete. But even more important, it’s the work along the way. That’s going to be the long-term benefit for our students and for our area employers.”
Tackling a root cause of hunger
SkillsUSA is supported by the Hunger Collaborative, a group of individuals and leaders from 27 nonprofits both directly and indirectly involved in food assistance. Community members with food insecurity may lack the training and skills needed for higher-paying jobs that provide better financial stability. Career technical education for young people is one of several approaches the Hunger Collaborative has outlined to support workforce and skills readiness, with a goal of creating a talent pipeline to build opportunities for regional employers and trades students alike.