Standout Wisconsin students in the trades, from welding to 3D printing, are hoping to secure a spot in a national competition to spotlight their skills.

The SkillsUSA Wisconsin state conference began Tuesday at the Alliant Energy Center. Over 1,700 students from across the state are competing at the conference for a chance to represent Wisconsin in the national SkillsUSA event in Louisville, Kentucky in June.

Students will compete in over 75 skilled trade areas, ranging from welding and carpentry to computer programming and 3D printing. Madison area students representing Madison College, East, West, Memorial and La Follette high schools are participating in the conference with their peers from over 80 chapters across the state.

State Superintendent and Democratic candidate for governor Tony Evers was the keynote speaker at the opening of the event, and celebrated the program’s ability to teach students both technical expertise and soft skills like networking and communicating.

“Lasting 45 years is a milestone," Evers said, referencing the organization's anniversary. "Forty-five years of working to make sure Wisconsin has a highly skilled workforce and, frankly, making sure everyone becomes a good adult... that is one of my goals for every single one of you."

“It is a reminder to me of what’s good in Wisconsin education," he said, addressing the crowd of students and their mentors. "It is designed to make young people ready for college and career.”

Brent Kindred, director of SkillsUSA Wisconsin, said the 2,900 middle, high school and technical college students who participate in school-based programs is the highest number since the chapter’s inception in 1974.

“For 45 years, we’ve been getting more people into the skills and industrial pipeline... and instilling the soft skills (employers) ask for,” Kindred said during the opening ceremony.

Nicholas Rufus, 17, and Giovanni Perez, 18, are seniors at Milwaukee’s Bradley Technology and Trade School. They huddled around a table in their red SkillsUSA blazers, discussing their upcoming engineering competition and their aim to earn a gold medal.

“I’m excited about winning. I want to go to Kentucky,” Nicholas said confidently.

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Bradley Tech started their SkillsUSA chapter last year. Giovanni said he appreciates the experiences he’s had so far with the program.

“We get to come out, travel and show off our skills,” he said.

Malyun Ali, 17, is a senior at Bradley Tech. Although she was hesitant to join SkillsUSA after being recruited by a teacher, she’s grateful for the camaraderie she’s created with her teammates.

“I’ve learned leadership and teamwork. We’ve really bonded with each other,” she said.