John Hills was a junior at Port Huron (Mich.) Northern High School when he got a little push from his advisor to try something new.
“We had a very good teacher whose name was Paul Johnson,” Hills says. “His policy was he pushed his entire class to SkillsUSA membership and competition every year.”
That push made a huge difference in how Hills viewed his education. “All schooling with no real goal in it –– especially from the point of view of a teen-ager –– is really hard,” he says. “Your only goal is ‘learn it or you’re going to fail.’ Having something above that to strive for is a real big benefit.”
It seemed to make all the difference for Hills. He made it to nationals that first year, competing in Electronics Technology and winning the bronze medal. The next year he made it again, this time taking gold. This put him on the international team in 1997. There was only one snag: That contest focused more on troubleshooting, while Hills’ experience was more in design and building.
“The skills I picked up in my class are really what carried me through: basically, being able to think my way through how the product worked,” he says. “Since I had all the actual technical background in designing and building a circuit similar to what was inside these products we were troubleshooting, I felt able to understand what was really going on, and that really got me through the competition.”
Hills placed fifth in the international competition but says the spread between the top five finishers was less than 15 points. “I would have won except for the slip of a hand,” he explains. “It was kind of disappointing.”
He now works as a software engineer for Philips Consumer Electronics and still makes time for SkillsUSA. In 2003 he served as an ad-hoc judge for the national Electronics Applications competition.
Here’s his advice for today’s SkillsUSA members: “Live it! You can’t just go to class and spend your one hour, or whatever it is, and expect to come away as one of the best. You’ve got to be willing to put in the extra effort, the extra time and push yourself past what the class is pushing. You’ve got to take that extra effort and put an extra ‘oomph’ in yourself.”
Hills still values his SkillsUSA experiences. “The push for excellence is still around,” he says.
“Once you’ve glimpsed that higher goal, beyond just getting today’s work done [or] just being mediocre, that was the thing that I’ve held onto. You don’t want to be average and just be another head in society.”