Contests Attract Support for Skill "Olympics." (Case Study)

By Luchsinger, Daniel | Public Relations Journal, February 1992 | Go to article overview

Contests Attract Support for Skill "Olympics." (Case Study)

Luchsinger, Daniel, Public Relations Journal

Leaders of the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) celebrated in 1973 when President Nixon named the organization to select contestants and represent the United States in the International Youth Skill Olympics. But costs of the selection process proved high and began to impact other important VICA programs. The organization faced a chouce: either drop the international proram, or build additional public awareness and financial support. The solution was to make the skills trials part of major industrial association annual meetings.

VICA was formed in 1965 at the suggestion of the U.S. Department of Education, and labor and state vocational education leaders. The founders wanted an organization that would raise the standards of vocational curriculum, provide national recognition for achievements of vocational students, and enhance vocational programs with leadership, citizenship and character development programs.

Today, the Leesburg, VA-based organization has more than 14,000 local chapters with more than 265,000 members. It sponsors training in nearly 100 skilled occupations ranging from advertising design, industrial electronics and brick masonry to robotic work cell technology, commercial baking and consumer electronics. VICA also conducts an annual National Leadership Conference, the United States Skill Olympics (USSO), a professional development program and an employment network.

Each year, more than 3,000 USSO finalists, each a gold medal winner at the statewide level, compete nationally in one of 44 skill contests at the USSO. "These grueling contests, designed and judged by industry experts, clearly demonstrate vocational students' skills to attendees who are expects themselves," noted John H. Whiteside, a former VICA Foundation chairman and a human resources executive with General Dynamics.

In 1991, the contests covered 425,000 square feet of floor space at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville. The cost of the event including floor space, machines donated for the contestants' use in demonstrating their skills, and the manpower to produce and judge the contests, was $6.5 million. In addition, the USSO brought $2 million to the host city's hotels, restaurants and other services.

Justifying the costs

In 1973, VICA's board of directors saw its new association with the International Youth Skill Olympics as a major opportunity to publicize the need for skills training. Board members were eager to obtain the support of major corporations for the event, particularly at a time when international competitiveness is an important business issue. They viewed participating in the skill olympics as a way to demonstrate what properly skilled Americans are capable of achieving compared to people from other countries. But, by 1986 the board was seriously considering bowing out: the costs were impacting other programs.

"For the first three International Youth Skill Olympics, we paid for selection contests, international travel for contestants and necessary support staff from our annual budget," explained Thomas W. Holdsworth, VICA director of public affairs.

The costs of participating are substantial. Transportation, training and international membership fees cost almost $300,000. In addition, manufacturers donate modern tools and equipment for students to train on. And thousands of volunteer and staff hours are necessary to raise money and train the U.S. team for competition.

The level of competition is intense. Robert E. Pope, of St. Petersburg, FL, was the United States' only 1991 gold medal winner, earning the prized medallion for his skill in electric welding. It is the first time an American contestant has won this event. Pope's outstanding performance in several projects, including the assembly of a pressure vessels using several types of welds on different types of metal from aluminum to stainless steel, scored the highest of any contestant in any event with 583 out of a possible 600 points.

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