At a giant convention center in Kansas City, four Billings students will compete this week, troubleshooting real-life auto and diesel repair problems. The national competition, called SkillsUSA, helps hone workforce skills.
Competitors in automotive and diesel categories move from work station to work station where they must use a scan tool to diagnose problems or grapple with the cause of a snapped driveline.
To qualify for the national competition, two students from the Billings Career Center and two from Montana State University Billings College of Technology won the statewide SkillsUSA competition in Havre in April.
Students at the Career Center began participating in the SkillsUSA program in 1977, but this is the first time that Career Center students will compete at the national level in automotive and diesel technology.
Keith Kemmis, who placed first in diesel technology among other high school students, has worked on cars since he bought a 1978 Bronco in the eighth grade, using money he saved from lawn mowing and other odd jobs. David Larson, the son of Rich and Nicolette Larson, won the statewide automotive competition. Larson started paying attention to car repairs when he learned to drive.
“I like the hands-on stuff,” Larson said. “I’m not an office person.”
This fall, he plans to enter the diesel program at the College of Technology, using a $1,000 scholarship he won at the state competition.
During the state competition, high school students spent less than 10 minutes at each work station. At nationals, they may have 15 to 30 minutes to complete tougher tasks.
“You don’t have time to think, you just have to do,” Larson.
Outside class, Kemmis likes restoring cars.
“To take something that’s old and busted and return it to its former glory, that’s what I enjoy,” he said.
After a Career Center field trip to Tractor and Equipment Co. during his junior year, he realized he wanted to work on diesel engines.
“The power, the smell, the taste, everything about it, it’s just so different,” he said. On the tour, he saw motors as big as the cars he worked on in the Career Center’s shop.
Kemmis was one of two students in the state selected for Caterpillar’s ThinkBIG program. The paid internship will allow him to alternate six-week stints working at Tractor and Equipment Co. with taking courses at Portland Community College in Oregon.
Kemmis, the son of Rick and Paula Kemmis, was a three-sport athlete at Billings Skyview High School until he suffered two knee injuries, one in wrestling and another in football. He started at the Career Center as a junior.
“The Career Center just kind of gave me the opportunity to take a hobby and figure out I could make money at it as a career,” he said. “Me and my friends were always tooling on cars and building trucks.”
Both Larson and Kemmis took all nine automotive classes offered at the Career Center. Kemmis was a teaching assistant in the automotive program during his senior year and in his last semester, four of his six classes were in the automotive program. Since there is no formal diesel program at the Career Center, Kemmis had to figure out how to apply what he knew about gasoline engines to diesels.
Students who join the SkillsUSA program meet outside of traditional class time. Kemmis hooked up with competitors from the College of Technology to sharpen his skills. He and Larson, who also graduated from Skyview, spent a Monday recently going over heating and cooling systems with their Career Center adviser, Joshua George.
The national competition involves more than 100 vocational categories and attracts more than 15,000 competitors. In one part of the conference center, masons will build brick walls; culinary arts students fix food in another section of the complex. The automotive and diesel categories will each include more than 50 contestants.
Students who ace the national competition are often rewarded with scholarships, job offers and tools, said Pete Bushman, diesel instructor at the COT.
“If the students do well at this, they’re coming out of this with some pretty top job opportunities,” Bushman said. “The doors start opening up when you start doing well.”
Two recent graduates from the COT also plan to compete in Kansas City.
In April, Taylor Fouts, of Turner, and Josh Squires, of Billings, won top honors in the Montana State Skills Conference competition at MSU Northern. In addition to high school students from 30 schools, the state competition drew post-secondary students from MSU Billings and MSU Northern.
Fouts, an honor student, completed his degree in automotive technology and is beginning his associate degree in diesel technology. Squires, also an honor student, earned his degree in diesel technology. Both COT programs offer an associate of applied science degree and a certificate program.
The Career Center program dovetails well with the COT program, George said. The goal is for students “to go from our doorstep to theirs and not miss anything.”
Thirteen students from the Career Center competed at the state level in automotive technology, diesel technology, power equipment technology and carpentry.
“David and Keith are exceptional students. They’re both very mature, they’re definitely focused. ...You can put them on a project and leave and they’ll just finish the project,” he said.
Students from both the Career Center and the COT leave Monday for Kansas City.
For Larson and Kemmis, the trip holds some bonuses beyond the competition. Larson hopes to drive Kansas City go-carts that travel at speeds up to 70 mph. Kemmis is “pretty stoked” to go to Kansas City because he loves barbecue.