NEW PORT RICHEY
It was all hustle and bustle with not a moment or an inch to spare in the Commercial Foods kitchen at Marchman Technical Education Center. Fifteen students donning chef's whites were racing the clock as they gathered eggs, flour and the like to prepare an assortment of baked goods — pies, rolls, spritz cookies and a decorated cake — in three hours' time under the watchful eyes of four professional judges.
"It's nerve-wracking," said Ali Hoppe, 18, a senior from Dixie Hollins High in Pinellas as she sifted flour for a batch of water rolls.
It was all for the annual SkillsUSA Region 4 competition held Feb. 6-7 for students enrolled in career and technical programs in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas County. About 300 high school and adult students showcased in the fields of cosmetology, culinary arts, automotive service and marine mechanics at the New Port Richey school. They also had the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess in quiz bowls, job demonstrations, mock job interviews and extemporaneous speaking. A drafting competition was held at Pasco-Hernando State College. The competition continued Feb. 12-13 with a welding contest held at pTEC in Clearwater and fire fighting, carpentry electrical wiring, industrial motor control, plumbing and photography competitions at pTEC in St. Petersburg. Winners of regional competition go on to compete on the state level (April 27-30) in Pensacola. After that comes nationals (June 23-27) in Kansas City and then, perhaps world.
"This is so good for the competitors and even the students who aren't competing," said commercial foods instructor Peter Kern as he scanned the activity in his kitchen classroom. "It gives them (competitors) a sense of urgency and professionalism. It's like being under a big microscope for three hours. They have to be excellent at working in a small area and knowing a recipe. For the rest of the students, well, it gives them a sense of pride in showcasing the school and what a great job we do here."
Culinary judge Katie Perkins can attest to that. The graduate of Marchman remembers fondly her time competing in SkillsUSA 13 years ago. She went on to graduate from Johnson and Wales University in Miami and now cooks professionally at Bonefish Grill in Trinity. She also serves on Marchman's advisory counsel and happily judges SkillsUSA competitions with the thought that bridging a connection between the school and local business is a good thing.
"It's good to work with the students because they have questions to ask that I have answers to because I'm out working in the real world," she said.
After taking first place in job interview, cosmetology student Stephanie Perry, 26, said she is "beyond excited" to be heading to state competition — especially after taking a scary leap in leaving her desk job of five years to learning a career that better suited her life as a single mom. Now she is in her second semester in Marchman's cosmetology program and has taken on the responsibility of serving as a SkillsUSA regional officer.
"I can't wait," said Perry, adding that she tweaked her resume and relied heavily on her people skills during the competition. "It's beneficial in so many ways. It helps you know the skills that are helpful in any career that you might want to go into."
While job preparation is key, so is the confidence and leadership skills developed in students taking on the challenge, said cosmetology teacher Kellyann Haudricourt who coordinated the competition with Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and Heating Technology teacher Rich Catozzi. Like Perkins, Haudricourt is a Marchman alum and also the 1992 chapter president when SkillsUSA was called VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America). Eight years ago she came back as a cosmetology instructor after working in the field for 15 years. She now serves as the regional officer trainer and state board member for SkillsUSA.
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"I tell my students it's not just about competing," Haudricourt said. "Winning is great, but this is also about facing your fears. It's about overcoming obstacles and becoming a leader."