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Seoul Survivor: Auto Body Repair Division of the World Skills Competition

Vo-Tech student Lee Geiger of Wisconsin will represent the United States in the auto body repair division of the World Skills competition this fall in South Korea. Here’s how this small-town student braved turbulent weather and showed he had the right stuff to take on the world.

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Lee Geiger’s Manitowoc County high school didn’t even offer any auto repair classes, but they did offer some welding classes, which offered him some instruction to welding. But Lee had already been welding since he was 14. In fact, Geiger had been helping his father restore a 1948 farm truck, which had been in the family for 40 years. So by the time he took those metal classes in high school, he’d become pretty adept at making body modifications.

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He became so adept that he graduated the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay with high honors in their autobody division. These high honors paved the way for him to compete at the SkillsUSA competition in 1999. After winning the state competition, he placed third at the nationals. His continued great performance in further competitions through 1999 and 2000 led to his qualifying for the Industry Trials – a competition among the top four collision repair students of the last two year-period — where the winner would represent the United States at the World Skills Competition (WSC).

The Industry Trials this year were pretty intense. And it wasn’t just the competition, but the weather, as well. Held in Houston, Texas in June, the weekend of the competition coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Allison. Despite having a pretty name, the hurricane was anything but. Just ask Johnny Dickerson, who sponsored one of the competitors and helped organize the event. “The students arrived Friday and so did Allison,” he says. “I picked up Joe [Bills, a competitor from Utah] from the airport at 11 p.m. and we were waiting for Shawn [Griffin, another competitor from New Jersey]. We waited until past midnight, but he never arrived. So Joe and I left to make the short 15-minute-drive back to our hotel. Some two hours later we arrived. The hurricane rains had swelled to over 10 inches and we saw cars exit off the highway ramp only to be submerged under water. The service roads were underwater. Finally, I located an exit that appeared to be safe and we forded through two feet of water to get back to the hotel. Joe’s tools were ruined, his automatic welding helmet wouldn’t work and his sanding disks were ruined.”

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But as they say, the show had to go on. Geiger had two competitors now instead of three, since Shawn Griffin was unable to attend. The event lasted two days, and the three students — Geiger, Bills, and Geronimo Medrano of Texas — appeared to perform almost flawlessly, making the judges’ decision a tough one. But it was Geiger who came out on top, earning a chance to represent the United States in September, halfway around the world. And Geiger has challenges to face before he gets to Seoul.

Unlike most competing countries, the U.S. government doesn’t subsidize the travel and training costs of its World Skills competitors. So Geiger had to obtain private donations and seek out places to train. But while he still needs more donations to cover all his expenses, Gieger is thrilled to represent his country and is going with an attitude that he’s going to win the title.

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What is the World Skills Competition?

Good question. Held every two years, the WSC promotes vocational training in craft, industrial and service trades. It measures training quality and provides opportunities to examine training in other countries. This year’s event in Seoul is the 36th times the competitions have been held. In 1999, when the WSC was held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, more than 600 young people from 34 countries participated. That year, Caleb Burnison of Wichita, Kan., represented the United States in the car painting category and Eric Stark of Largo, Fla, represented the United States in the autobody repair category.

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To compete, contestants must be under the age of 22. In the United States, they’re selected among national winners at the SkillsUSA Championships, and are then invited to participate in the Industry Trials.

The U.S. first competed in the WSC in 1975, two years after President Nixon recognized the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) as the official organization to represent the United States at the WSC.

TeamUSA is supported by corporations, trade associations and trade unions. To make a donation to help a contestant like Geiger, send them to Ada Kranenberg, SkillsUSA, P.O. Box 3000, Leesburg, Va. 20177, or got to www.skillsusa.org

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