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June 29, 2009
Contributing Editor Joel Leonard supports simple efforts to help fight the maintenance crisis.

What did you do during the summer when you were 11 years old? If you were like me, you went swimming, fishing, attended summer camp, relaxed and goofed off.

So, imagine my surprise at learning about a kid who is literally leading a movement. I had the fortunate opportunity to meet Zachary Borden from Tampa, Fla., on his way to Washington, D.C., on foot. Yes, Zachary is walking 1,225 miles to deliver a message to President Obama to do more about homeless children. Zachary has built the Little Red Wagon Foundation and has been raising money since he was six years old. He doesn’t want to wait for grown-ups to do something about it. The money he raised has helped pay for rent, tuition to college and, yes, tuition to trade school. When I told him about the opportunities available in skilled trades, he agreed to pitch in and help us fight the maintenance crisis. Now we have a real power source for our cause. Check out his activities at


Also, I have to report the loss of Alecia Lilly, the vice president of Dian Fossey Foundation,, who succumbed to an arterial collapse and passed away while in the Congo. After spending three years in the bush to study and protect primal ape populations, she realized the best way to help the animals was to help the native human population learn to grow and raise their own food sources, upgrade their healthcare and develop marketable skills.

We had been in discussions on helping Dian Fossey Foundation with technical training programs and other economic resources so that gorilla poaching becomes less of a need. I hope to continue supporting these efforts as the foundation copes with this loss of a tremendous leader. Hopefully, more people will rise to the occasion and address this huge challenge. A link to Alecia’s interview on this topic is at

I recently had the pleasure of attending the North Carolina finals of the Skills USA competition, where 1,300 kids competed for the chance to represent the state at the National Skills USA competition in Kansas City. Watching the participant’s energy, excitement and confidence during the event inspired great optimism that educational leaders recognize the skills challenges and are working to upgrade skill levels in the post-boomer generation. Check out for more information about the Skills USA initiative in your area. The organization needs more corporate support to help fund travel to the national competition, find mentorship opportunities with potential employers and defend against educational budget cuts.

Vocational training, as we know, gets neither the respect nor the funding it needs to produce a qualified talent pool. Skills USA competitions have helped to a degree, but we need to get ramped up to much higher levels to fill the future need in the workplace.

However, in this economic downturn, all educational programs are getting budget cuts and because school administrators don’t fully understand the economic value of these programs, technical training is often the first budget-cut victim. In one case, an absurd but real decision was that because cosmetology was a popular class, the school is increasing that program next year and cutting back on classes in CAD, construction, and auto and industrial repair.

At a time when millions of skilled workers will be leaving the workforce soon, the kids — not educators, not employers — are choosing which career classes will be taught. Kids need career guidance because they don’t know much about the working world, yet administrators let them pick which classes to offer with no consideration of value, need or the importance to the economy. For some reason, these administrators have forgotten their mission isn’t to satisfy student curiosity, but to prepare them for real jobs with valued skills. According to an outraged school administrator, most of the cosmetology students chose that offering not for vocational interests but to learn how to fix their hair and apply makeup.

Are you sure that your school administrators aren’t making similar choices? Are you supporting your local Skills USA programs? Are you developing apprentices to learn from your senior workers?

Maybe you can’t walk 1,200 miles or visit the depths of the African jungle, but you can speak up and do more to help fight the maintenance crisis. As we’ve recently witnessed from the explosion at a beef jerky plant and another crash of a commercial airliner, keeping equipment at optimal levels requires constant vigilance and skilled effort. Please share your efforts and activities, and if you need help, don’t hesitate to contact me.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].