by Bob Allen – photography by Nikola Tzenov

Bright lights shined from above, video cameras captured her every move, she could hear the click click click of cameras, and passersby were calling out “Yea USA!” People were speaking languages she couldn’t understand and signs were written in an alphabet she couldn’t read. She was excited and nervous and knew that she could not let her mind wander to the fact that her competition included more than 1,300 students from every corner of the world.

She focused on the task at hand and knew that her years of learning and training had prepared her for what was ahead: four high-pressure days of performing practical and technical skills to be judged by experts from around the globe.

2016 Winters Mill High School graduate Brittany Whitestone traveled to Kazan, Russia, in 2019 to compete in WorldSkills, a competition in which young people from all over the world gather to compete in skills from a range of industries. Prior to entering the world stage, the Westminster resident won two national SkillsUSA championships for her work in print media technology. She placed ninth in the finals of WorldSkills.

Whitestone said the competition was the most exhilarating, sleep-deprived, nerve-racking and unforgettable week of her life. She didn’t come away a world champion, but she believes she came home with a lot more.

“The world competition was probably one of the best things that ever happened in my life,” she said. “Being there, you’re able to meet people from all over the world and see how different people do different things. And it was really cool to see what life was like over there.

“It’s truly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

Now 23, Whitestone continues to advocate for SkillsUSA, serving as a volunteer adviser to some of the current crop of students participating in Carroll County’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. Whitestone says the CTE programs and SkillsUSA not only thoroughly prepared her for her professional future but also helped her grow as a person.

“It’s been extremely helpful. I not only learned a lot about printing, but I also learned what I wanted to do. I was also able to network with people and get my foot in the door and actually start doing what I wanted to do.”

what is SkillsUSA?

SkillsUSA aims to develop “world-class workers, leaders and responsible American citizens.” How does it do that? It combines a student’s passion with academics and then adds competition with their peers. Those who are successful may find themselves competing at the state level, the national level, and even on an international stage.

David Hutchison, an instructor at the Career and Tech Center, has had many students, like Lillian Hipp, who have competed and done well in SkillsUSA. He also taught and advised two-time national SkillsUSA champion Brittany Whitestone, who went on to successfully compete in WorldSkills, the international equivalent of SkillsUSA.

Hutchinson likens the program to a sports team or student government organization in that it focuses on leadership, teamwork and technological skills in different career fields.

“Students are given lots of responsibilities at different levels and they are trained to perform [workplace skills] in an environment that’s constantly changing,” he said.

SkillsUSA was founded in 1965 and is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. In a given year, roughly 310,000 students and instructors nationwide participate.

Students’ SkillsUSA entries serve as a demonstration of the specific training and education they’ve obtained in CTE classes, both at the center and their home schools. There are roughly a hundred different categories of trade and technical skills which they can enter. These range from heavy-equipment maintenance and carpentry to baking and automotive technology.

To illustrate how sophisticated, complex and time-consuming entries can be, Hipp describes her state-champion presentation in the graphic communications category. It included a rigorous graphic communications exam about “printing presses, how they operate and the math that is involved.” She was also administered a professional development test relating to the SkillsUSA program itself.

Her Adobe InDesign software skills were tested, and working under a deadline, she had to create a flier using a specific set of instructions. Finally, she was rigorously interviewed and quizzed by a panel of industry professionals.

If Carroll County has a poster person for SkillsUSA, it’s Westminster resident Brittany Whitestone. With Hutchison’s guidance, she earned two consecutive first-place finishes in both the state and national competitions in the graphic communications and print media categories.

In 2016, she was one of 15 students from the center who made it to the nationals, held in Louisville, Ky. On average, about a dozen Carroll students travel to the nationals in a given year.

“My category included anything and everything to do with the trade of printing,” Whitestone said. “It includes going through the entire process of designing and printing, including performing maintenance on the machines.”

After graduation, Whitestone, while studying at California University of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh, refined her presentation and took it to the next level, entering it in the international World Skills competitions. WorldSkills is the international equivalent of SkillsUSA.

Now 23, Whitestone currently works as a junior accounts coordinator for Ironwork, an Annapolis Junction-based multi-faceted design and communications company.

The real world needs CTE grads

According to the Association for Career & Technical Education, more than 80 percent of manufacturers report a talent shortage, and nearly half of talent recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies report trouble finding qualified candidates with a two-year STEM degree. The association reports that by 2024, 48 percent of all job openings will require education beyond high school but less than a four-year degree.

The Carroll County Career and Tech Center website says the center opened as the Carroll County Vo-Tech in September of 1971 as the county saw a need to train students for vocational work. At that time, programs included carpentry, auto mechanics, cosmetology, floral design and data processing. In 1987 the program expanded to include diesel, welding and HVAC. The center underwent a transformation in 1992 with the name formally changing to the Carroll County Career and Technology Center and adding an expanded list of cutting-edge programs, including engineering, biomedical science, Cisco networking and criminal justice.

CTE programs are designed to provide students with employability skills and technical job-specific skills, along with core academic skills. They also give students an opportunity to “test drive” future careers.

In recent years, CTE instruction, in Carroll County and elsewhere, has been even more refined as an effective pipeline to an array of occupations where there is a robust demand for trained employees.

Carroll County Public Schools Supervisor of Career and Technical Education William Eckles says that each CTE career cluster is advised by a committee of professionals in that particular professional sector. The overall CTA program is also served by a countywide, school board-appointed advisory committee on career and technical education.

“Our industry partners keep the teachers up to date on trends, new technology, the direction that their industry is headed and what they expect from a new employee so we can prepare our students appropriately,” he said.

CTE classes are also designed to match the interests and preferences of students while giving them a chance to try on different career possibilities and see how they fit.

“To say that every teenager knows what he or she wants to do with their lives is just unlikely,” said Eckles. “But we want students to be able to explore and try out things when it costs less financially and in terms of time than if they wait to do their exploring in college. High school is the time to be trying out ‘the new you.’”

Eckles says that at any given time, about a third of Carroll’s public high school population takes CTE classes, either at their respective high schools and/or at the Westminster Career and Technology Center. The instruction also helps students obtain industry-recognized credentials and in some instances, earn college credit.

Betsy Donovan, principal of the Career and Tech Center, says that on a given day during the school year about 600 students are studying at the center.

Donovan cites a recent senior exit survey that shows where CTE students plan to go after graduation. Sixty-three percent go on to college or trade school. Nine percent go directly into the workforce. Twenty-two percent combine jobs with continuing education, 3 percent go into apprenticeship programs and 3 percent into the military.

According to the Association for Career & Technical Education, about 2.5 million students across the country enroll in CTE classes each year. These students have a graduation rate of 90 percent, which is 15 percent higher than the national average for students across the board.

CTE programs provide both an introduction, and in many cases, advanced training for jobs ranging from masonry, cosmetology and the culinary arts, to video production, information technology and applied mechanical engineering. Additional CTE career clusters include government and public administration, health science, marketing, sales and service, and hospitality and tourism.

Planning for the future starts in middle school

Starting with middle-schoolers, the Carroll school system makes sure each student is exposed to and aware of career and tech program offerings.

“Middle school students who take family and consumer science classes get to start having conversations about career options, in terms of what exists in the real world and how it might match up with what they’re interested in,” Eckles said.

Eighth-graders are invited to tour the Career and Technology Center or attend open houses. Each student is also given a booklet, “The Pathway to Careers,” which outlines how CTE works and the opportunities it offers.

Ben Clarke, a Manchester Valley High senior, recalls that the CTE programs appealed to him as early as middle school.

Clarke, 17, a Manchester resident, who plans on going on to a four-year college, says that as a sophomore he and his classmates got almost constant reminders about offerings at CTE.

“They have middle school students come over and tour the center, so they can get an idea about it,” added Clarke, who is studying video production and is part of a team that won third place in the digital cinema category of SkillsUSA state competitions earlier this year. “It also gives students time to decide what they want to do.”

Like many of his peers, Clarke still isn’t quite sure what he wants to be when he grows up. But he says his CTE classes, and especially the video production team at the center, have certainly helped him clarify both his interests and his options.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I took a leap of faith and tried out the

program,” he said. “It’s really professional, just like the real job. It’s really helped me discover where I’m going and what I want to do.”

Lillian Hipp, a South Carroll High senior, is studying print production and what she describes as “communication through graphics” at the center.

She is also a recent state champion in SkillsUSA, a national competition in which CTE students demonstrate their knowledge, skills and training in an array of professional categories.

Hipp recalls how impressed and intrigued she was when she toured the center as an eighth-grader, and later when she revisited it during an open house.

“I visited the different programs and the people in print production really impressed me,” Hipp recalled. “It was such a free and creative environment.”

Hipp gives credit to David Hutchison, her instructor and adviser for her gold-winning SkillsUSA presentation. Hutchison himself has a long, multi-faceted professional background in creative design.

“He has a wide variety of experience, which he actually conveys,” Hipp said. “Rather than all pen and paper, he’s about figuring out the solution to problems. His program has definitely given me the foundation I need to prepare for the workforce.”

Hipp describes her study and training with Hutchison at the center as “more like a workplace …. In school, you have a desk, you go to your desk, and you leave your desk and it’s pretty boring. You learn concepts, but you don’t often get to do the concepts. [At the center] you actually get to apply what you’ve learned and use it to figure out how to solve problems. That makes you learn it even more.”

Hipp plans on studying marketing at a four-year college. “In marketing, I can use all the elements of printing and graphic design in a way that incorporates entire companies or brands, which I think would be more challenging than just designing individual projects,” she said.

Hutchison, her instructor and adviser, says that before entering his program at the center, students take an introductory CTE design course at their home high schools in order to try out the discipline and see how it fits.
He’s been teaching at the center for 16 years, and says he still finds it deeply moving and satisfying to watch his students flourish and discover themselves.

“I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and I’ve been able to see kids blossom,” he said. “You have some who hardly speak in the first day of class, but by the end of the semester, they are directing the others, managing the shop space, calling clients and doing all these incredible things.

“And in the end, they become professionals and are ready to take on any challenge they face. Then when they get out in the real world and interview for jobs they just blow everyone’s mind with how amazingly prepared they are.”