By Tim Leeds
Montana State University-Northern this week had a mass of students in distinctive red jackets on its campus for the 30th year in a row.
About 300 students, plus their advisers and bus drivers, were at Northern for the state SkillsUSA-VICA conference, which concluded today with an awards assembly at the gym at 10 a.m. and a meeting for the people qualifying for national competition at noon.
Competitors said the conference was both fun and challenging.
"It's been a blast," said Tami Goss, a freshman from Lambert High School. " I don't know how I did on some. It's pretty scary."
The competitions ranged from events in business preparation and prepared speaking to combination welding, from cabinetmaking to diesel mechanics. Goss said she competed in events in different categories.
Kevin Johns from Roundup High School said he's concentrating in the welding events. He's done welding before, he said, but it's still challenging because of time limits and the competitive nature of the conference.
The conference has competitions for both secondary and postsecondary students. A new college was competing this year. Students from the Helena College of Technology observed the conference last year, but competed this year and helped with the conference.
Lynn Stilger, who teaches in the diesel program at Northern, is the campus coordinator for the conference. He said the college students are the main workers in the high school events, along with competing in their own events.
"That's our main source of manpower," said Don Michalsky, state SkillsUSA-VICA director.
Stilger worked with different members of the faculty and staff at Northern and at the different schools competing to set up the conference. Competitions in about 20 events, as well as meetings, meals, ceremonies and recreation, were scattered around eight buildings on Northern's campus.
Students who win the state competitions in most events qualify to compete in the national conference, held in Kansas City, Mo. Montana also holds a few entry-level competitions in woods and welding that do not qualify winners for nationals.
Several Montana students went on to place at last year's nationals, in competitions against students from the other 49 states. Josh Klein of Capital High School in Helena took 10th in automotive service technology, and three Northern students placed in postsecondary competition. Scot White placed fourth in combination welding, Cory McFarland took sixth in collission repair technology, and Wade Kidder took 12th in automotive service technology.
Business is involved in the conference, with several corporations sponsoring the event or offering scholarships to winners. Havre businesses also help by buying ads in the program for the conference.
Other colleges are showing interest in joining the conference in the future, Stilger said. He added that interest seems to be growing in the technologies covered at the conference, coming back after attention shifted to technology like computers in the 1990s.
"We thing the pendulum is starting to swing away from computers," he said. " We're starting to see the things we've done all along are coming back into vogue."