the Business Professionals of America Administrative Support Team earned second place at the state competition. Pictured from left to right are members
the Business Professionals of America Administrative Support Team earned second place at the state competition. Pictured from left to right are members Desarai Gazaille, Emma Andrews, Kevin Dowling and Andrea Leal. (Courtesy Photo)

In their competition field, there are jackets and pins to be earned, distances for teams to be traveled and audiences in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands.

But in the world of Business Professionals of America and SkillsUSA -- both organizations that teach and promote students' career skills -- the only things to be tackled are business challenges and the only running students do involve campaigns.

Students from McCann Technical School in North Adams and Taconic High School in Pittsfield, both longtime members of the Business Professionals of America (BPA) state and national programs, earned distinguished contest placements at the 2014 BPA National Leadership Conference, held April 30 to May 4, in Indianapolis, Ind.

Several students from McCann will also represent the Berkshires in the 50th annual SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference which will be held June 23 to 27 in Kansas City.

Pittsfield and Taconic high schools are now just establishing their own SkillsUSA chapters, while Wahconah Regional High School this year began its own BPA chapter.

Tom Tinney, a CAD instructor at McCann Tech, who has also served as the school's SkillsUSA adviser for the past 13 years, says this trend in involvement is not only happening in the Berkshires, but across the country. At McCann, SkillsUSA is a school-wide program. As for BPA, Taconic and McCann average 20 to 30 participants each year.

"I think people are starting to see the opportunities these programs have for students, the growth that the students experience and the opportunity to receive scholarships, not to mention the fact that it looks great on a resume," Tinney said.

Cindy Durkee, head of the business education department at Wahconah said joining BPA is something that she's wanted to do for some time for students. The new chapter is supported by teachers Brenda Wilbur and Jeffrey Pike.

Taconic team members at the recent BPA National Leadership Conference in Indianapolis.
Taconic team members at the recent BPA National Leadership Conference in Indianapolis. (Courtesy Photo)

"In order to get our students better prepared for college and careers, we wanted to give them a chance to utilize the real-world business skills and problem solving opportunities that we teach them on a daily basis," said Wilbur.

Frank Cote, Pittsfield's assistant superintendent for vocational programs, said there's also value to educators in joining something like SkillsUSA. "The program's not all a competition. There is professional development embedded in it for teachers as well as for the students. What they do also mirrors what the state's vocational frameworks call for," he said.

As for the students themselves, they say BPA and SkillsUSA give them the opportunities to travel, to meet and make friends with peers from other places, and to show that they are qualified and able to do real world business and problem solving.

"It's a vocational arena where you can excel and demonstrate the skills you've learned in school," said McCann business technology senior Andrea Leal, who has participated in both Business Professionals of America and SkillsUSA. She has previously held rank as state secretary for BPA and was at this year's BPA National Leadership Conference elected as national secondary secretary by thousands of delegates attending. Leal is the first student in McCann history to hold such a national rank.

This year, Leal passed the reigns of BPA state secretary to McCann information technology shop junior Elizabeth Culpepper.

Both students, along with others in the competition, had to organize a campaign and run for office. As with any political or professional election campaign, there were timed speeches to give, petitions to get signed and voters to reason with.

Dress is professional. BPA is known for its navy blue blazers, while SkillsUSA members wear signature red blazers. Each organization has its own respective pin, which is also worn during official meetings.

As for all members, as in athletics, BPA and SkillsUSA students have to raise funds to participate in state and national events. This year, Taconic's BPA chapter held an online fundraiser to garner support, in addition to things like bottle drives and a talent show. BPA co-adviser Lynn DiSimoni said the effort grossed $1,700, but she and her students are hoping to gain more visibility in the coming years to garner more support. Registration fees alone range from $115 to $145, and lodging can be around $200 or more a night, plus travel and meal costs.

DiSimoni said students prepare year-round for the state and national competitions by participating in mock interviews and challenges with local business partners from places like Sabic and General Dynamics among others. Students also do internships and are available to help support business-related events such as running information tables at a Pittsfield Third Thursday event or helping with a community service project.

"We're trying to spread the name of BPA," said Taconic senior Makenzi Astore. "We're not just some kids. We know how to dress, how to act, how to organize, which will also know is hard to find these days."

Most BPA and SkillsUSA student devote dozens of hours on their own time, practicing skills on their own or as a team to prepare themselves for the challenges they face, whether it's designing code, building a machine, or balancing a budget.

"I was a little nervous at first," said Taconic sophomore Matthew Berry, when he learned of the work and time committment involved. But he said he's found friends in his chapter that have supported and encouraged him, making it all worth it.

McCann cabinetry shop junior Laura Heritage said that the two national vocational programs are helping students find respect among themselves and on a much larger scale in a non-athletic arena. "It's a really eye-opening and personal experience that's preparing people for the rest of their lives," she said.