Sarah Buckner has a rare quality in high school students -- she knows exactly what career path she wants to take.

For the past three years, she's spent hours each day cutting, filing and painting nails at Halls High School in Knoxville, preparing for a career in cosmetology. This week, she's shown off her knowledge at the state SkillsUSA competition, which drew about 1,500 high school students and their family members to the Chattanooga Convention Center to compete for technical school scholarships.

"It really sets you up for what your actual school is going to be like," Buckner said. "It means a lot to me."

Buckner will find out today where she placed against the 14 other girls in her division. The cosmetology contest was one of 80 competition areas as diverse as robotics, cabinet making and masonry.

About $2.2 million in scholarships to Tennessee technical schools will be awarded to winning students today.

But the competition is about more than just the money and recognition. Several companies sponsor and judge the competitors, eyeing future job candidates.

"It's a good opportunity for us to find quality help, and it's a good opportunity for them to get quality employment," said Keith Owensby, an assistant training director with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and electrical competition judge. "I see a couple in the group who could if they want to."

Owensby regularly recruits students into his apprenticeship program. He said the students tend to have more skills, a better work ethic and better attitude than older people entering the field. Students enter his program making $13 an hour and, five years later, usually leave making more than $28 an hour.

"We call these high-skilled, high-paying, high-demand jobs," said Sue Tucker, Tennessee SkillsUSA program director. "It's a great job market."

More and more skilled trade workers are retiring every day. The next generation, which largely shirked trade schools in favor of bachelor's degrees, aren't sufficiently filling the gap, Tucker said.

Students who complete the three-credit career and technical education programs related to SkillsUSA are driven, motivated and nearly ready to join the workforce, Tucker said, with a graduation rate of about 92 percent.

"It causes them to focus," she said. "They want to finish high school."

The overall graduation rate for all students was 85.5 percent in Tennessee and 81.7 percent in Hamilton County last year.

The state competition winners announced today will continue to a national competition in Kansas City.

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