ILWACO — Cutting away the rubber casing of a length of copper wire, Ilwaco High School students Alex Hillard and Keegan Kemmer began their work as electricians.

Freshman Hillard, 14, and 17-year-old junior Kemmer, spent Wednesday, Jan. 29, grappling with residential construction wiring in a SkillsUSA competition.

SkillsUSA is a national membership association for students in middle school through college who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service jobs. Similar to Future Farmers of America, SkillsUSA includes regional, state and national competitions on what students are learning in class.

Ilwaco High School hosted the 2020 Southwest Washington regional competition for residential construction wiring and screen printing last week. Students who score high enough at the regionals competition will move on to the state competition held April 2-4 in Yakima.

Overseeing the competition was Stephen Blasko, Ilwaco High’s instructor for construction, engineering, shop and computer programming.

In addition to Hillard and Kemmer, three other Ilwaco High School students participated in the competition: 16-year-old junior Dakota Shepard; 18-year-old senior Ethan Knopski; and 16-year-old junior Nate Hopkins, who isn’t in a technical class this semester but got roped into the event by some of his friends.

Grant Nortom, a journeyman electrician for For Electric came to judge the competition. First, students had to complete a multiple choice test. The boys were allowed to look up information for the test in a massive codebook. Questions ranged from calculations about voltage to theoretical electricity questions, like ‘What is Ohm’s Law?’

“You could teach an entire class on the theory of electricity,” Blasko said.

Blasko’s program takes a holistic view of construction. Rather than students learning either carpentry or electrical wiring, they learn how it fits together. They should leave the class with an idea of how to build a house, Blasko said.

Create and destroy

The program feeds the instinct to create and destroy. Blasko will give the kids a hammer, and let them put a hole through some drywall — then make them patch it back up.

“I tell kids the class is super beneficial to explore, even if you’re not interested in it as a career,” Blasko said.

After the paper exam, students tested two at a time on wiring a three-point switch, which is a light and two switches. This type of wiring is useful when a switch is put at the top and bottom of a staircase. It allows someone to turn the light on at the bottom of the stairs and off at the top.

Some of Blasko’s past students have gone on to work in the community, including at Ford Electric. The trade skills gap is a growing concern across the nation and as the older skilled workers retire, there will be a lot of jobs out there without a trained workforce to fill them, Blasko said. Blasko hopes his classes will excite students about a career in trades.

And it seems to be working on at least some of his latest students.

Knopski spent his summer getting his electrical trainee license. The best part of the work was when he got to fix something specific for someone. “Going on trouble calls, going places and helping someone out, instead of like, wiring a house,” Knopski said.

Kemmer wants to be a lineman one day, climbing up power poles for a local electric provider. He likes heights, Kemmer said. His uncle works as a ground man for the Pacific County Public Utilities District.

Qualifying for great jobs

Jim Hilbert, PUD No. 2 operations manager, was excited to hear about the students interested in working as electricians. The PUD is looking for kids from the area to learn the trade.

Hilbert spent Tuesday, Feb. 4 showing 18-year-old Ilwaco senior Jack Marshman around the PUD. Marshman shadowed Hilbert before and is interested in going to Eastern Washington University for electrical engineering. Hilbert was enthusiastic about Marshman’s plans.

“We really like to have local kids show an interest,” Hilbert said.

Hilbert encouraged students interested in working for the PUD to look at the Vocational Outside Line Training Academy, aptly shortened to VOLTA. The program is in Warrenton, Oregon at the Camp Rilea Military base and costs about $8,500.

When students leave the training, they are likely to find a good paying job three to five weeks after graduating, Hilbert said. Pacific County PUD offers apprenticeships to aspiring electricians.

With equipment that can lift you up 150-feet in the air, the job can be a rush, Hilbert said.

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