REM

People are quick to point out the shortcomings of a beleaguered public education system here in the United States. But after spending a week at the National SkillsUSA Competition in Kansas City, I am hard-pressed to come up with criticism. Amidst slashing budgets, standardized testing, and the ever-changing demands of the 21st century, there is still a beacon of hope for our students.

In my case, the beacon has a name: Jerry Delgado. Although, you don’t need his name to find him—Jerry’s infectious laugh precedes him. You can hear it from across a room. Like hundreds of other teachers and volunteer staff at Skills USA, Jerry supports the nearly 6,000 high school and post-secondary students who have come from around the nation to show off their career and technical skills at the event.

The students here are the cream of the crop. They have already won regional and state competitions. They are now competing for a national title for in categories that range from commercial baking to welding. Computer maintenance is among the hefty list of programs that focus on repair. (That’s why we came.)

Jerry has taught computer maintenance in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program for 10 years. Through CTE programs, like those represented at Skills, students learn hands-on repair skills. But to win a national title, repair skills aren’t enough. Students have to demonstrate professionalism throughout the competition. They have to write and present a resume and dress to code.

“Skills USA is a means for career and technical students to prove their skills and professionalism, which is needed in the workforce today,” Jerry sums up the program. “Students need to learn these hands-on skills to get a job in today’s competitive market.”

Giving students a leg up isn’t the only motivation behind Jerry’s work: it’s about sustainability, too. From the solar panels on his home to the computers in his classroom, Jerry spends a good amount of his time thinking about the long-term impacts consumer goods have on the environment. He teaches students to value repair—not only as a career opportunity, but as a part of consumer responsibility. In an age where technology is designed to last only as long as our ever-shorter attentions spans, such lessons are critical.

The skills students learn in CTE programs helps to prepare them for dynamic on-the-job problem-solving. But, Jerry insists, the programs also push youth to think of the contribution they will make to society as adults.

“Students need to understand what they need to know and learn to figure out how to get that information on their own,” Jerry said. “Working with others is crucial to solving problems in computer maintenance...nothing these students learn only relates to computers, it is about skills for life.”

And so, like knowledge passed down through generations, repair is passed from instructors like Jerry to students—and into the future.

For Jerry, it’s the stories of the students who return years later that matter. He talks animatedly about the kids who have gone on to successful careers. But no matter where the students end up in life, they all start with the same piece of advice. On the first day of school, Jerry tells every single classroom, “Learn something everyday, even if it’s not in class. If you haven’t learned something today, you haven’t lived today.”