HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State’s Technical Division has made it an annual tradition to send multiple students to the SkillsUSA national competition.

This year is no different.

James Foster (Welding), Matt Phillippo (CNC Milling) and Vincent Ponder (Precision Machining) each finished first recently during the statewide SkillsUSA competition, and along with second-place winner Seth Pillow (Job Skills Demonstration), will represent Wallace State at the 50th annual SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Kansas City, Mo., from June 23-27.

“I can’t wait to see what we do. It means a lot to be able to represent Wallace State,” Foster said. “SkillsUSA has helped me a lot. It’s helped me grow as a welder and improved my work ethic. I’ll always encourage people to compete in it.”

Wallace State once again dominated during the statewide competition, which was held at various colleges and locations. Other Wallace State students to finish in the top three in their respective competitions were Dustin Miller, second place in Precision Machining; Caleb Tucker, second place in CNC Turning; Will Hudson, third place in Related Technical Math, Charli Smith, second place in Related Technical Math, Kyle Wright, third place in Technical Drafting; Eddie Lewis, second place in HVAC/R, Robert Summerford, second place in Diesel Technology; Jacob Wright, third place in Automotive Service Technology and Austin Decker, third place in Refinishing.

Foster, Phillippo, Ponder and Pillow will all represent Wallace State during their first trips to the national competition.

It’s an experience they won’t soon forget according to Jimmy Hodges, Wallace State’s Dean of Applied Technologies.

“SkillsUSA is a life-changing event. Our students will never be the same after seeing what’s in store. You’ll have 15,000 to 20,000 people invading Kansas City (Mo.) and taking over the city for the whole week for the event,” Hodges said. “Our students and instructors aren’t only representing Wallace State, but they are representing Alabama and competing against some of the most talented welders and machinists in the country.

“This truly is like the World Series of trade skills. We’re super excited about the opportunity for all of our students.”

Before James Foster hits the national stage, he can seek advice from his older brother, Joey, who graduated from the Wallace State Welding Department in 2009 and was the college’s last national champion at the SkillsUSA competition a month after graduation. Joey Foster was also a two-time state winner.

“Joey played a big part in me pursuing welding as a career. I wasn’t happy with my previous job, and Joey showed me you can choose a profession like welding, which he loves and makes a lot of money in it. I’ve grown to love it myself,” said James Foster, who graduated high school from J.B. Pennington. “I’m ready to see if I can do what Joey did at the national level. I’m going to try to stay focused on it and have fun with it. I can’t guarantee I’m going to do what he did, but I’m working hard six days a week on it.”

Hodges is thrilled the Foster surname continues to thrive in the welding department.

“I think it’s a special twist to have another person from the Foster family competing for a national championship. It’s a special moment for them, and I’m sure that’s a popular conversation around their supper table,” Hodges said. “It’s already been a special year for the Foster family, and I know James is working hard to maintain the family legacy on the national level. Foster and Jim Thompson (Wallace State’s Welding Instructor) won’t be satisfied with anything but first place.”

Much like Foster, Phillippo’s interest in Wallace State’s computer numerical control (CNC)/machine tool technology program was influenced by his family. Phillippo’s uncle and stepfather are both machinists, and he plans to follow in those footsteps in some capacity.

Phillippo, a 2011 Hayden graduate, is honored to have the chance to compete at the 50th SkillsUSA conference.

“I wasn’t too nervous during the state competition, so I’m going to try to stay calm at nationals. I don’t expect to see anything new. Our instructors get us completely prepared for this competition, so I don’t think they’ll be any surprises,” said Phillippo, 20. “I’m excited about the opportunity to represent Wallace State. I’m going to try my best to win.”

Both Foster and Phillippo work at O’Neal Steel in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, Ponder won first in precision machining and also praises the efforts of Wallace State instructors Randy Moon, Gary McMinn and Jonathan Minyard for preparing him as much as possible as he won the top medal in his competition.

“It was all kind of new to me at first, but we practice a lot and that makes you get better. A lot of preparation went into it, whether it was preparing for the skills or the interviews. It was great to come out on top. It was close for me. Only one point separated first and second place,” said Ponder, 20, an Arab native. “I’m really looking forward to the next step. It’s going to be exciting.”

Pillow is also eligible to compete at the national event after the first-place winner was unavailable to attend.  Pillow, 18, is a Falkville graduate.

All four Wallace State students will be required to complete written and performance tests at the national tournament.

Each Wallace State student is seeking to join Foster of welding (2009) and Matthew O’Neal of machine tool technology (2003) as Wallace State’s SkillsUSA national champions.

Wallace State’s participants seem to leave a strong impression each year.

“One of the contest workers came to me last year and made a comment about how we were doing something right. No matter the outcome, people are always recognizing the effort and attitude of our students,” said Minyard, a Wallace State tool and die instructor who annually accompanies the college’s students to Kansas City, Mo. “Our guys are always well behaved and they show respect for others. They don’t come in with a haughty attitude or act like they are better than anyone else. They are going to do the best they can, and it shows in everything they do.”

SkillsUSA is a national nonprofit organization serving teachers and high school and college students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including health occupations. SkillsUSA serves more than 300,000 students and instructors annually. The organization has 13,000 school chapters in 54 state and territorial associations.

For more information about Wallace State, visit wallacestate.edu.

James Foster of the Welding Department.

James Foster of the Welding Department.

Matt Phillippo  of CNC Milling.

Matt Phillippo of CNC Milling.

Vincent Ponder of Precision Machining.

Vincent Ponder of Precision Machining.

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Russell Moore

Staff Writer

Wallace State Community College

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Kristen Holmes
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