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Mike Cowles: Preparing Students with Pathways

As we continue to celebrate the 70th anniversary of our amazing program, we are taking a deep look at the evolution and growth of SkillsUSA Ohio over the last seven decades. What started out as Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) has now advanced into the program we know today as SkillsUSA Ohio. On our journey through the past, we have seen how this organization has ignited passions, motivated young people, and developed into an essential part of our community. By preparing students with the skills they need to succeed, we are closer to filling in the skills gap one student and one pathway at a time.

To help us gain a better understanding of where we were to where we are, we spoke with former SkillsUSA Ohio State Director, Mike Cowles, about his experience with SkillsUSA Ohio. Mike’s first love is the classroom, where he finds himself today in sunny Florida providing adults with the resources and support they need to pursue their GED-Florida High School Diploma. Before re-locating, Mike served as the SkillsUSA Ohio State Director from 2001 to 2016 and helped to implement lasting changes in the program to further its reach, promote student education, and stimulate the growing minds of tomorrow.


How did you originally get involved with SkillsUSA Ohio?

In the late 80s, I taught math at The Upper Valley Career Center in Piqua, Ohio. There, I was originally exposed to VICA (now SkillsUSA Ohio). I then became the head of the local chapter at Jefferson County Vocational School from 1995 to 2001 and supported the kids that were competing in regional contests. As an administrator, I coordinated chapter activities and worked with officers and teachers to engage and prepare the students for their competitions. I believed SkillsUSA Ohio was an integral part of the curriculum and I pushed hard with other administrators to make sure that this tool was being used. It became the glue that held our school together.

How did the program grow or change during your time with SkillsUSA Ohio?

It changed a great deal. I took over an already amazing program from Jeff Merickel, who really did amazing work developing the officer program and activities. I came in and continued to run the ship he built. At this time, the focus was on leadership and teaching students what they needed to learn about professional organizations. Students were preparing for a job instead of a pathway that held a lot of different jobs in a particular field. After about 4-5 years in my position, the focus became the expansion of the career pathways and college and workforce readiness. We changed the entire look. Prior, all the activities were at the fairgrounds, and we transitioned the Fall Leadership Conference to the Hyatt Regency downtown to make it more professional. This engaged the industry and business community in a different way. We did many presentations and focused on bringing in the industry to help students. During this time, we embraced the career pathways model and the curriculum changed. Everything got broader than it was before, and we picked up a lot more academics. We focused on the idea of “lifelong learning” and grew from 9 to 12 pathways. It was incredible.

In what ways do you feel SkillsUSA Ohio prepares students for the workforce that traditional schooling/paths do not?

For students that stay involved, it creates passion and motivation as well as additional connections. I instruct adults now and I am seeing the difference in students who did not have that link.

In your opinion, what reasons should a student get involved in SkillsUSA Ohio?

Get involved for the opportunities and connections. Be involved in something bigger than the classroom that teaches hands-on skills and life lessons.

What are some valuable soft skills that students learn?

Employability—interviewing, job application, communication, confidence. I always pushed my students to not be afraid to get up in front of someone and talk—to introduce themselves and not be afraid of making mistakes because that is how you learn. Preparing for competitions was huge too, teaching them to study what they needed to, the technical work, and pay attention to detail. SkillsUSA does a great job with preparation and following the rubric to do the research. You can be very successful and build a model to follow for the rest of your life.

Can you talk a little about competitions—what to expect, how they help?

Competitions set a student up for life. No matter what you do in life, you are going to be competing with someone. It gives the students experience, confidence, and provides a benchmark for moving forward. It isn’t about the gold medal; it is about showing up and doing the best you can do. That is what makes you win. If you don’t show up, you won’t be successful down the road. The competitions were extremely critical.

What is one of your favorite memories from your time with SkillsUSA Ohio?

My best memories were of taking students to Washington D.C. and giving them the opportunity to visit Capitol Hill and see all the history involved in those trips. It was incredibly special. Jeff Merickel started that. Taking them was the highlight of what I did because it had a significant impact on a small group in many ways.

What advice would you give a student starting their journey with SkillsUSA Ohio?

Be open to ideas and be open to letting down your barriers and stepping out of your comfort zone. Take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to you.

The amazing accomplishments Mike Cowles had during his time with SkillsUSA Ohio, visibly made lasting changes to the curriculum, framework, events, and pathways. To listen to him recall all the fond memories and recount all the things that made him proud, only cemented the sentiment that SkillsUSA Ohio is a special program that produces amazing results. If you are interested in learning more about the pathways and the program, contact us and see how you can get involved in something bigger than the classroom.


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