ATLANTA — When I first learned that Roofing Contractor magazine planned to cover the 59th annual National Leadership & Skills Conference in Atlanta, held the week of June 24 at the Georgia World Congress Center — and commonly known as SkillsUSA — I admit I hadn’t a clue what I would be attending. 

In hindsight, I'm a bit embarrassed to acknowledge that oversight, considering the talent displayed throughout the week in virtually every skilled trade one could imagine. Even then, most imaginations would struggle to conceive of the event’s breadth and scope.

As obtaining four-year college degrees becomes increasingly unaffordable for many, the allure of entering a skilled trade has gained new cachet, and nothing underscores that more than seeing some 6,600-plus high school and post-secondary students compete in 115 unique competitions.

From culinary arts to welding, HVAC, typesetting, graphic arts — and virtually any occupation involving time, talent and apprenticeship — the cream of the crop was on hand to claim victory. Official attendance numbers included 6,647 students competing and more than 10,000 attendees, including judges, parents, spectators and the media.

This was technically the third year commercial roofing was part of the competition, which now appears to be a misstep considering nearly every element comprising the building envelope participates. Last year was technically the first time a hands-on roofing competition took place. And, while I was not on hand to see how 2023 presented, this year was nothing short of mouth-agape amazement. 

The SkillsUSA commercial roofing competition.

Participation in the commercial roofing competition nearly tripled year over year: last year, there were four participants; this year, 11 current or recently graduated high school students participated in the first day’s event, while three post-secondary entrants participated during the second day.

Contestants were each presented with a mocked-up section of a low-slope roof and tasked with applying the most commonly used roof type, thermoplastic, on the same mockup used for NRCA’s ProCertification exam

Participants put on all required safety equipment, rolled out a sheet of thermoplastic membrane, mechanically attached it to the deck, flashed the perimeter edge wall, and flashed around a box and pipe boot. The contest began the day before the hands-on skills event with a written test, like the NRCA’s TRAC: Thermoplastic course exam.

The competition emphasized not just the technical skills of roofing but also the importance of safety and professionalism. Contestants were evaluated on their ability to perform tasks efficiently and cleanly, with points awarded for the proper teardown and removal of materials. 

Additionally, participants were required to submit their resumes and OSHA certifications, reflecting the competition's focus on career readiness and the professional development of its contestants.

Roofing's inclusion in SkillsUSA be attributed in large part to the Roofing Alliance, which recently donated $150,000 to help fund the roofing competition for the next three years; the National Roofing Contractors Association, which coordinated the event; and one man who readers of this magazine are well acquainted with: Rick Damato, RC’s recently retired long-time editorial director.

Damato had urged the industry for years to get involved with SkillsUSA for the very reasons the program exists: it harnesses the best up-and-coming talent in the field and, as an added value, demonstrates to the outside world the skill, concentration and qualifications necessary to become a commercial roofer. 

The contest is a boon for the roofing industry, which faces a long-term labor shortage of nearly 40,000 workers, according to the NRCA. To highlight the exceptional talent witnessed at the event (and who may soon be on a rooftop near you), here are the winners of the competition:

In the “Secondary” category, third place went to Matthew Rodriguez of Arizona, second place to Moemi Marinez of Florida, and Brandon Lopez of South Carolina won the competition. In the “Post-Secondary” category, third place went to Hunter Hamilton of Tennessee, second place to Mathew Addington of Florida and Tyler Hutchenson of New York won.

It's worth noting that being a contestant in Atlanta already signifies an achievement of greatness. The national competition is tiered, meaning that participants at the GWCC had already won a contest at the state level; each young man and woman in the competition had already proven their worthiness. 

Over the next few weeks, RC will examine how SkillsUSA can contribute to solving the labor shortage in roofing and returning skilled trades to careers that can support families and rebuild America through shingle, TPO, or a hundred-plus other opportunities.