“The skills gap.”

It’s a phrase we hear time and time again when speaking with current and prospective industry partners at SkillsUSA, and it’s a phrase that’s tied directly to the work we do every day. When most hear that phrase, their first thoughts turn to a lack of technical—or hands-on—skills related to a specific industry, and that’s entirely accurate. For example, the manufacturing industry alone forecasts more than 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, and other industries offer similarly daunting predictions when it comes to securing their future workforce. Viewing the skills gap as, first and foremost, a shortage of technical skills is so pervasive because it’s such a clear and present threat to American industry.

But confining the concept of the skills gap to technical skills alone—as crucial as they are—is like blaming a leaky roof on the rain and disregarding the hole the rain is leaking through. Yes, those partners we speak to are quick to point out their need for workers with the technical skills their industries require, but they’re equally quick—sometimes more so—to voice their need for employees who also possess the life and leadership skills that can be applied to any career field, those skills that set certain employees apart as leaders, achievers, and difference-makers: skills such as communication, teamwork, professionalism, responsibility and many more. The skills gap also encompasses those skills. In fact, if given the choice between one entry-level worker with stronger technical skills and another with stronger employability skills, employers will choose the latter almost every time. That’s why they approach SkillsUSA—our students excel in both areas.

Empowering Students to Become Skilled Professionals

SkillsUSA members during the TeamWorks competition at the SkillsUSA Championships held in June. In TeamWorks, competitors work together to build a construction project over two days that demonstrates their ability to work as a team. PHOTOS COURTESY OF SKILLSUSA

SkillsUSA is a career and technical student organization committed to building the future skilled workforce our nation depends on. We connect education with industry to develop graduates who are career ready, day one—ready to work, ready to lead, and ready to make a difference. Our mission is to empower students to become skilled professionals, career-ready leaders, and responsible community members. We serve more than 380,000 students and teachers in middle schools, high schools, and college/postsecondary institutions nationwide. Perhaps some of you support a SkillsUSA chapter in your school. If so, thank you! Perhaps others have never heard of us until now. If so, I hope you’ll reach out to learn more.

Whatever your knowledge of SkillsUSA may be, I can assure you of this: We’re all on the same team when it comes to opening wider pathways toward personal and professional success for our students. The key to that success is illuminating—for both students and teachers—that crucial, powerful connection between the skills that a job requires and the skills life requires.

As principals, you work to fix the knowledge and skills gap every single day. Many students are lacking the necessary skills to succeed, whether they’re headed to high school or college or entering the workforce full time. Perhaps one of the reasons for that lack is that, too often, hands-on and academic skills are treated as separate entities from leadership and life skills. In our view at SkillsUSA, they’re all part of the same package.

The foundation for everything we do in SkillsUSA is something we call the SkillsUSA Framework, and it’s made up of three equally weighted components: personal skills, workplace skills, and technical skills grounded in academics. Within each of those components are what we call “Essential Elements,” 17 in total. These are specific skills identified as crucial to success by the more than 1,000 industry partners who helped create the framework.

For example, within the personal skills component, you’ll find essential elements such as integrity, work ethic, and adaptability. Within workplace skills, students may develop teamwork, decision-making, and communication. And, within the technical skills component, students could focus on areas such as computer and technology literacy, safety and health, and professional development.

What this holistic approach accomplishes is, quite simply, life changing and perspective shifting, and not just for our students. Our SkillsUSA advisers and teachers experience light-bulb moments of their own that shape the rest of their careers as they witness firsthand evidence of the symbiotic connection between these three different skill components. When they all work together in harmony—like a finely tuned engine—they help shape the workers employers are desperate for and the people our schools, workplaces, and communities need more than ever.

Chelle Travis, center, with students from SkillUSA’s national officer team on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the organization’s annual Washington Leadership Training Institute in September.

One of our teachers, Amanda McClure of Union Grove High School in McDonough, GA, says it best: “SkillsUSA transforms timid students into leaders, disinterested students into competitors, and self-centered students into team players. I have seen the positive changes SkillsUSA makes in my students’ lives and witnessed their success in college and careers as a result of involvement.”

That success McClure speaks of can also be seen well before a student heads off to college or a career. Among our middle school students, SkillsUSA framework skills develop the foundation for a powerful sense of self-confidence that gives them a huge advantage over their peers when they enter high school. They also gain early exposure to career exploration, and many begin developing their occupational identity after discovering a career path that ignites their passion. Middle school, high school, and college/postsecondary students all have so much to gain from developing these skills, and it’s never too late—or too early—to begin.

The success of our framework—or any similar approach to skills development—depends on incorporating these lessons into the everyday work, programs, and projects of the classroom environment. In doing so, students quickly understand the complementary relationship between technical and life skills and why both need equal attention. For example, no matter how talented an automotive technician may be, if they aren’t able to communicate well with customers, work together in a team setting, or understand the importance of showing up on time, their chances of success in the field they’re passionate about is greatly diminished.

On the other hand, if they can pair those strong technical skills with equally strong life and employability skills, they’ll find themselves deciding what opportunities to turn down while others are searching for opportunities to pursue.

Incorporating Skills in the Classroom

How can teachers incorporate those skills in the classroom? At SkillsUSA, we offer a variety of methods. One is our Program of Work, which is a guide our chapters use to prepare their annual calendar of activities. It’s made up of six areas: workplace experiences, advocacy and marketing, leadership development, partner and alumni engagement, financial management, and community engagement. By planning and engaging in activities related to these six areas, students practice essential elements of our framework.

For instance, let’s say a chapter is planning something related to the advocacy and marketing category. They may want to conduct a recruitment activity in their school or deliver a presentation to a local school board (or their principal) about the benefits of SkillsUSA involvement. Completing that project takes a variety of essential elements into the equation: teamwork, communication, planning, possibly even multicultural sensitivity. Students experience firsthand how those skills can all come together to achieve a common goal they can take pride in and ownership of. The value of those experiences is immeasurable. Just ask former culinary arts student Alexis Gamez of Florida.

“This is where I learned and understood the importance of leadership,” she says of her time in SkillsUSA and the pairing of her culinary skills with newfound leadership skills. “It opened my eyes to the future. I had the privilege to learn how to become an ethical and effective leader. I gained so many other valuable skills through my program. We all walked away with confidence and pride. The importance of [these] experiences help us understand how and why we prepare our leadership skills for the real world.”

I’ve written a lot here about what we do at SkillsUSA, but, as I said at the outset, we are all in this together, and we can all learn from each other as we work to achieve the same ultimate goal: develop students who are ready to seize success on their own terms. That’s why we work so closely with the National Coordinating Council for Career and Technical Student Organizations—all CTSOs have developed their own similar methodologies for creating career- and life-ready students. Further, we all understand collectively that truly filling the skills gap we hear so much about requires the development of multiple skill sets, not just technical or academic skills alone.

SkillsUSA creates a new membership theme each year, and this year’s theme is “SkillsUSA: No Limits.” It’s an especially fitting theme in relation to this article, because once students truly understand the important connection between life and work skills to their present and future success, there are no limits to what they can accomplish. Helping them make that connection through real-world application should be our main focus as we build a future that we can all be proud of—a future grounded in skills. 

Chelle Travis is the executive director of SkillsUSA. Learn more at skillsusa.org.