In a crowded banquet hall at the Chattanooga Convention Center, there has been a flurry of activity this week.
Students styled hair and trimmed beards atop mannequins' heads, laid cement and bricks, drilled and nailed plywood and piping together to create a mock bathroom, coaxed robots to drive through an obstacle course and even roleplayed traffic stops with a real police cruiser.
"It's the Olympics of trade," said Boyd Hestand, SkillsUSA state director for the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Nearly 1,500 high school and college students are competing this week in SkillsUSA Tennessee's State Leadership and Skills conference. The career and technical student organization, which has dozens of chapters across the nation, aims to connect technical students to industry leaders.
SkillsUSA recruits students enrolled in either their high school's career and technical courses or in trade and technical classes at the state's 27 community colleges and 13 Tennessee College of Applied Technology campuses.
The state has seen a strong push for career and technical education, also known as vocational education, in recent years. One of Gov. Bill Haslam's biggest education initiatives, launched in 2015, has been the "Drive to 55" initiative, which aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with post-high school educations to 55 percent by 2025 through a number of efforts, including last year's Tennessee Reconnect bill, which gives many Tennessee adults the chance to attend community colleges tuition free.
Such efforts make technical school certificates realistic and attainable for many Tennesseans.
Derrick Garner, 29, is one of those students. Garner, who served for six years in the military, is now a student of TCAT Paris.
"I knew a four-year college wasn't for me," Garner said. "It wasn't what I wanted to do."
Garner said that for many students, they think the path to a four-year college degree is the only option or the only example of success.
"A lot of people got it in their minds that you were placed in CTE courses because you weren't smart enough," he said. "I'm letting you know you can learn a trade or a skill and be just as successful."
SkillsUSA chapters on school campuses recruit the highest- performing technical students and give them opportunities to showcase their skills, network with business leaders and even develop soft skills outside what they are learning in class.
"This has been more of a learning experience than a competition," said Garner, who serves on the SkillsUSA Tennessee's Postsecondary State Officer team. "If you don't have the soft skills, you won't know how to do an interview, to carry a conversation, to give a presentation I feel like that is as important as tearing down an engine and putting it back together."
For several days, students will compete in skills competitions that vary from prepared speeches and presentations to timed, hands-on activities. More than 200 students will have the opportunity to move on to the national competition in Louisville, Ky., this year to compete for gold. Since 2000, more than 300 Tennesseans have gone on to win a national gold medal in a SkillsUSA competition, Hestand said.
Emily Christian, 17, a junior at Volunteer High School in Churchill, has won gold two years in a row — both times in mock trial competitions. Though she's enrolled in her high school's criminal justice career and technical education program, Christian plans on going to college and then attending law school. One day, she hopes to be a prosecuting attorney.
"Soft skills are what high schools really lack sometimes," Christian said.
That's why she's thankful for the leadership roles and industry connections she's gained from SkillsUSA.
Hestand said that's part of the goal of SkillsUSA — to align technical education curriculum with industry needs.
"We're trying to address the Drive to 55 initiative by aligning the curriculum at the high school and postsecondary levels and shortening the time before employment, so students have a streamlined approach," he said.
Students have even been offered jobs by some of the more than 300 business and industry leaders who volunteer their time and resources at the regional and state competitions.
"Some of these people sitting around are going to hire these guys," Garner said of the judges. "They know [the competitors] are some of the best at what they do."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.