ANNISTON ARMY DEPOT, Ala.--High school and college students from the depot's Career Academy returned home with 15 medals from the Alabama SkillsUSA Leadership and Skills Conference held April 30 in Montgomery.

Students from the academy won gold, silver and bronze medals in competitions that tested their skills and knowledge in trades like diesel mechanics, electronics and machining.

SkillsUSA helps students, teachers and industry representatives team up to "ensure America has a skilled workforce," according to the organization's national website.

The depot's Career Academy hires high school seniors and college students on a cooperative, part-time basis, providing the students on-the-job training and an opportunity to be a part of the depot's fulltime workforce. Instructors-depot employees and educators from Gadsden State Community College-teach the following trades: machining, welding, hydraulics, electronics and diesel mechanics.

Twenty high school and nine college students from the Academy competed in 11 different categories, said Mary Mullen, the depot's program manager for the Student Educational Employment Program. Of those 29 students, five won first-place medals and are eligible to compete at the National Leadership and Skills Conference in Kansas City, Mo., in June.

"Winning at SkillsUSA is the culmination of all the hard work and cooperation displayed by the students and the instructors each day at the Academy," said Mullen. "This is just another way to display our top-notch program and its enthusiastic students and to forecast the makeup of our future workforce, which is nothing short of bright."

Nine high school seniors placed in competition while six of the depot's college-level students won in similar skill categories. These students credited the depot and its instructors for preparing them to compete against people from across the state.

Tyler Sitz, a GSCC college student from Southside, competed with a three-man team from the depot in the automated manufacturing category. He said he and his teammates-Trent Gray and Ben Roberts-knew that the competition would involve the use of computer aided manufacturing software, so they spent about two months learning the new software version they'd be using at SkillsUSA.

"We had little trouble learning to use the upgraded CAM software," said Sitz, "and that's because our instructors helped us succeed." The team of Sitz, Gray and Roberts placed second in the competition, which required them to draft a blueprint with required specifications that would create a program to make a part on a milling machine.

Because of SkillsUSA and the requirements it placed on the competition, these students are now able to write blue prints, whereas before they only read them.

Software wasn't the only thing new to competitors from the depot.

Anniston High School senior Octavia Francis has been working for a year to learn hydraulics at the Career Academy, but at the SkillsUSA competition in Montgomery, she skillfully won second place in the extemporaneous speaking contest. "I talk a lot, so it didn't bother me to compete in something new," said Francis.

Francis and her competitors were given a topic and then five minutes to mull over it before they had to present their points to a panel of three judges that measured the students' ability to adequately pronounce their words and clearly express their views. Two others from the depot's high school program placed in the extemporaneous speaking competition; Ureca Cook from Saks High School won first place while Kenneth Beason from Cleburne County High School placed third.

Cook, who studies electronics, said her topic was about building a solid foundation through service. "I just talked about volunteering in the community for things like Relay for Life. I told them (the judges) that if you help others in their time of need, they'll help you."

While being formally judged on extemporaneous speaking was something atypical for the students, another category, though not an unusual event in the real world, gave one student practice in something that she hasn't done since being hired at the depot.

Holli Eubanks, a graduate of GSCC as of May 8, won first place in the job interview competition. "I was judged on things I'd be judged on in the real world, like filling out an application and submitting a resume. I was then asked about job-related skills," said Eubanks.

Eubanks, who studied diesel mechanics in college, said she hopes the practice she received in job interviewing will help her as she progresses in her career at the depot.

Faculty at the academy includes 10 government civilians, one teacher from the Calhoun County Board of Education, and three instructors with Gadsden State Community College.

Jeffrey Gaither arrived at the depot four years ago to teach machine tool technology. Employed by GSCC as a contractor at the Academy, he said the students who compete in SkillsUSA each year become exposed to other ways of performing the same tasks, such as the case with using upgraded software and different test stands for mechanics.

"The results of this competition reflect well on the depot, and it was nice for me to see where these students have applied what they've learned," said Gaither.

While Gaither's college-level students at the Academy credit him for their knowledge and skills in machining, high school seniors Kyle Cummings and Johnny Johnson said the electronics training they received from Ralph Kirby in the high school area gave them an advantage over their competitors.

"It (competition) was like what we do at work. Mr. Kirby prepared us real well," said Cummings.

"He was relentless," said Johnson of Kirby.

Instructors couldn't help Casey Gurley, though, when she forgot her calculator going into the CNC milling competition. "A calculator would have helped," she said. The only female competing in that category at the state level, Gurley won the bronze medal.

Tyler Ponder had competed when he was in high school but didn't place until this year as a college student. He won the silver medal this year in diesel technology, a competition that involved 10 sections-from engine diagnostics and hydraulic component identification to job interview skills and transmission assembly.

"It's a big accomplishment for me," said Ponder.