SkillsUSA vs. FIRST

I recently had the opportunity to visit the SkillsUSA National Leadership & Skills Conference in Louisville, KY and I have to say, I was thoroughly impressed. I wanted to start this thread to highlight some of the differences I noticed between SkillsUSA and FIRST, and to find out if any of you are also involved in SkillsUSA. Here’s a short list of things I noticed about SkillsUSA.

  • The registration and badging process was a snap. No line, no waiting, and they easily found my name and got me my badge.
  • They don’t explicitly teach or talk about gracious professionalism, but everyone practices it just like in FIRST, or perhaps even moreso.
  • There are no safety advisors to be seen anywhere, yet everything in the entire event is exceptionally safe, even with students welding, grinding, and cutting with oxy-acetylene torches, right in the venue!
  • There is no one to hassle you, about anything. Walk wherever you want, etc. I spent 3 days in this event without anybody telling me to do anything. It was really nice.
  • Not too many people are in a big hurry over anything. It’s a nice atmosphere. At no point did I feel like I was going to be trampled.
  • There was a good selection of food in the venue: Salads, sandwiches, chicken, pizza, fish, ice cream, etc.
  • There was not much trash anywhere.
  • There is very specific judging criteria for every contest. The best person or team wins, and it is not by luck, and it is not a mystery.
  • Every contest you wan walk right up and watch from very close by
  • Lunch break actually seems to be a lunch break, for everyone
  • The event was not deafeningly loud. I could hear just fine afterward each day.
  • There are a ton of vendor booths with really cool product demos and giveaways. It was a lot like a professional trade show paralleling the skill contests. There were some big names and big displays including a giant Snap-On truck, a giant Miller truck where you could try out welders, a Toyota semi truck with racing simulators inside, real race cars, etc.
  • There are awesome prizes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place for most skill contests. Prizes included things such as power and hand tools, scholarships worth up to $5,000, and even a motorcycle! Yes, if you win the motorcycle repair contest, you win a motorcycle for you school!
  • All the contestants are dressed in a standard uniform. The uniforms vary depending on the particular contest. I would say there are maybe about 6 different types of uniforms.
  • Contestants are judged anonymously. They don’t know your name, your school, or really even the state you are from.
  • Most skill contests are individual, but some are in teams of 3.
  • There are no bystanders. Every person there is a competitor. In FIRST, you have your 4-person drive team, and maybe a pit crew, and maybe a scouting team, but you get a lot of students who are really just there to watch. In Skills, every student at the national contest is competing.
  • There is a very repeatable set of outcomes for all contestants. In FIRST, you can say your team won, but what does that really mean? Did the judges like you because you had a sob story? Did you get picked as the last pick by the first place alliance because you were the only decent one left?
  • There are high school students and college students competing. They compete in separate leagues.
  • There is an amusement park next door that all the contestants go to one night.
  • The national contest takes place right *after *
    the school year.

Now, the contest does lack some, or perhaps even a lot of the “pizzazz” that FIRST Robotics has, but there were A LOT of positives going for it, and there was a lot to like. The biggest thing FIRST had that SkillsUSA didn’t was something I’ll call “intensity.”

I think FIRST would benefit a lot by realizing they are not the only game in town, and by picking up on some of the positive elements that these other student organizations have going for them. Frank, if you’re reading, you can find me near the CNC contest area at SkillsUSA in Louisville next year. I’d be happy to show you around.

Anyone here involved in both FIRST and SkillsUSA?

I love Skills! Like you say, they’ve got a great culture, and a comparable mission. There are definitely some advantages to having a “judged” event, compared to a head-to-head style competition, as you point out, but I still find the latter more fun and motivating.

I came across this promo video from SkillsCanada. It definitely hits the same emotional cords as FIRST. I hope I’ll catch a competition one day.

This is very cool. In terms of potential adaptation, I wonder if you have any insight on:

  1. What mechanisms make it safe, particularly while not telling people where (not) to go and letting them watch from up close.
  2. What participants/stakeholders thought of holding the event after the school year.
  3. How Skills practices more GP / ways FIRST could practice more GP.
  4. What mechanisms made badging better, if any are non-obvious. Also, do “no bystanders” mean no unassociated spectators?
  5. I sense that Skills was physically (or psychologically) less crowded. How do the venue and schedule compare to FIRST Champs?
  6. Does any of the judging involve presentations or interviews, and if so how are they blinded and clearly assessed?

I’m a big fan of competition and choice.

It makes me insane when I hear a school administrator say that you cannot do X because we already do Y. And too often it is from an administrator that doesn’t know the difference between X and Y.

FIRST and SkillsUSA are different and they overlap, and both should be vigorously supported.

I’d like to go visit next year.

edit: FIRST and SkillsUSA are different beasts with different goals. So the comparisons are a little Apples and Oranges because of the different goals. That said I’m a big fan of competition, and organizations observing and learning from each other in order to better accomplish their defined missions.

Also note that the various WorldSkills organizations have been doing their competitions for a much longer time than FIRST, since the 50s!

I do think it is good for FIRST and those involved to understand there are other programs that do things differently and many times better than FIRST. SkillsUSA, MESA, Science Olympiad, and so on all have things going for them that FRC can’t come close to. Lower cost by a factor of at least 10, along with lower time and space commitment allows clubs to start up much easier, and for students with other commitments to more easily get involved.

FIRST, however, is better. I didn’t understand that FRC was so much more than what these clubs until my first competition.

I think that no other non- athletic competitions come close to the spectator friendliness of FRC. More importantly, it is also hard to match the team atmosphere or depth in time commitment and impact beyond the top two or three members in each of these clubs.

To your point though, from what I know about SkillsUSA, it is a great program. I agree that FIRST might learn from Skills in a few aspects of it’s program.

Those were a couple points I forgot to mention. While most of the skill contests I was confident my students do not currently know how to do, I was also confident that if we spent as much time on any one of them as we do on FRC, that we would certainly win every time. The level of competition in Skills has not yet been taken to the insane level that it has in FRC. Your average person still has a chance at winning.

As for safety at the event, I think it comes from the venue being filled by people who all have been trained in safety in their school’s instructional program.

As for crowd control, I did feel like the event was a lot less crowded. Fewer people per square foot in the venue. Also, there were lots of convention poles and curtain things (waist height) roping off the various contest areas, but you could still walk right up to them and be 10 feet away from the contestants and have a very good view of what they were doing.

Thanks for sharing. Skills is great on so many levels. When in school I competed a couple times for precision machining, and it was a great experience.

I participated in SkillsUSA way back when I was a sophomore. I guess I’m glad to know it is still around. I didn’t get as much out of it as I did FRC when I moved schools but I can see where it would be a good program and I definitely hope FIRST is communicating/partnering with them to share information at an organizational level if nothing else.

:] Hey!

I’d like to share my experience as a student participant of both, SkillsUSA and FIRST.

• They are two different organizations, and as stated before- it’s more of an apples to oranges comparison.

• SkillsUSA, I would say is more focused on the individual, with the exception of team work oriented competitions; which even then still emphasize individual performance when factoring into the “group score”

• FIRST is definitely much more intense and energetic, which I think lead’s to a much more fun experience when students are not in “competition mode.” I feel that this energy allows for more interaction between students on other teams, and provides an opportunity to make some amazing friends.

• SkillsUSA’s judging criteria, I agree, is very rigid. This clear definition of how students are ranked makes it easier for one to understand why they received 2nd place, instead of first. SkillsUSA leaves a contestant with little to wonder, whereas sometimes during FIRST events, team’s receive very little closer (if at all). There might be some bias from the judge, or maybe your team got lucky during alliance selection, team’s picking during alliance selection may go for the “big name teams” even though there were plenty of better performing teams, etc. In short, if you win or lose in SkillsUSA, you know why, but in FIRST it’s sometimesopen for interpretation.

• Something that SkillsUSA has, that FIRST doesn’t emphasize to a strong degree is the grievance system. If a contestant believes that they are being treated unfairly, someone is receiving and unfair advantage, or that something is wrong with their contest, they can file a grievance immediately, and the matter will try to be resolved. Along with this, when I was competing at districts for Skills, instead of school names or student ID, we simply had our contestant number written to identify us, which I guess eliminates bias some what…

• FIRST has a way more supportive community, both inside and outside the events. I simply love how everyone has a competitive and technical attitude, but will also do what they can to help you. Some of my favorite memories this 2016 year, where when I was helping other teams, and vice versa.

• I think for some, not all contests, students have the chance to win something significant. Whether this may be a complete set of Snap On tools, or a $5,000+ scholarship, students have the opportunity to really compete for their reward, which FIRST does to some degree. My only issue with the FIRST scholarship system is that it’s dependent of the post secondary institution one choses to attend, so you could’ve participated very actively in FIRST for 4+ years and then go onto not receive a scholarship because the institution you chose to attend was only awarding one, which is frustrating at times.

• I don’t know if it was just me, but I got really bored when I wasn’t competing – there wasn’t much to do during the off times when you had to wait for the everyone else to finish their contests - at least at the district level.

• FIRST was a lot more captivating and engaging for me, for several reasons. I think the idea of building something from the ground up, really attaches you to it and makes whatever you do very personal - so going to events and seeing all these different solutions and designs, really makes you take pride in your work and team. FIRST is very fast paced, not to say SkillsUSA wasn’t, but there’s something about a motor failing, a drive belt snapping, or code not working that really puts you in moment in the pits - I love it so much, nothing else compared.

• I think being involved in FIRST has allowed me to explore/utilize all my talents, for instance, I was involved in both the technical and non technical aspects of my team. Some days I would be working to wire sensors, build gearboxes, and manufacture parts, while other days I could be making calls to companies or organizing events.

• SkillsUSA, I think has a little better recognition if you are vocational student, applying for a job while in high school, because it’s so closely related to industry specific tasks.

• FIRST is also very industry specific, some of the components and practices that we used on our robot this year are some that you’ll surely see used in the real world.

So in the end, I’m glad I participated in SkillsUSA, it was fun, but I didn’t enjoy it half as much as I did FIRST. So it all boils down to which one you spent your time and heart into more, and for me that was FIRST. I’m glad that someone mentioned these two amazing organizations in a post, usually people I’ve met know of one, but not the either, so thank you for brining this topic to life…

  • Mo

I will add a bit on SkillsUSA as I have been involved with it way longer than FIRST (my father has been his school’s main SkillsUSA advisor 14 of the last 17 years). I think the first main question was how do they keep so safe with little supervision. Each contest has a penalty in it to where if you violate a major industry safety rule you lose 10% of your overall score and if you do it twice you are disqualified from the competition. The second part is yes Skills is wayyy more individualized than FIRST as far as competition goes. Many Skills Chapters do have their own social events, but their is more emphasis on the individual. As a note here the school chapter I was a part of had around 500 members to now the one I am leading has around 20 members. For the GP side of things Skills places a big focus on community service. Each year at nationals I was able to go and do a major community project such as building a house or building a community garden. The biggest similarity between the two programs are the tie ins with industry. CAT, Lowes, Snap-on, Stanley, and Milwaukee tools are the major sponsors with many other big time donors for Skills and I have personally seen CEOs of these companies walk up to students at the end of nationals and offer them major employment opportunities along with a full ride scholarship on the spot. I think many of you undervalue the level of competition as the high end students at nationals are unreal. Most of the time the construction competition winner in which the students build a miniature house in 2 days is usually decided by the hammer marks in the wood because everything else is perfect. Every competition has a knowledge exam worth points as well. Some sates competitions such as Texas, California, and Michigan (wow how similar to FIRST) come down to even this much as well. The final competition aspect that I like more for Skills over FRC/FTC is that the students compete by themselves with no coach/teacher interaction. The reason for this is that all student and adult competitors are required to be from vocational programs in which they are trained daily on instead of how any student can be a part of FIRST. As for size Skills had more students than VEX did at Louisville both times I have gone so I would say it would also be bigger than FIRST as well as far as just a large event Skills Nationals vs. FIRST worlds, but Skills Worlds is a smaller competition. I would say both FIRST and Skills do a fantastic job at accomplishing their mission to empower and Inspire students in their fields. Without both I know I wouldn’t be a robotics/technology educator right now. I agree with MoMo you really can’t compare the two equally like you can with VEX/FIRST.

I’ve heard that some schools do BOTH Basketball and Football, even though they are both athletic endeavors requiring you to perform an arbitrary task with an inflated object while people try to stop you from doing so.

Apparently some people think basketball is better than football, but most people think they are both pretty awesome and appreciate the differences between them.

To say that Skills, VEX, FIRST and MATE are similar because they all involve robots is kind of like saying soccer and hockey are the same because they both involve teams of people trying to put an object in a net!