Kansas City, Mo The fate of what has become Kansas City's largest annual convention rests in the hands of federal budget makers.
The 39th annual SkillsUSA-VICA national championships sometimes called the Olympics of Everyday Life begin this week at Kansas City's Bartle Hall.
There is some concern that there will not be a 40th installment of the event, which pits more than 4,200 high school and post-secondary students against one another and the clock in 75 skilled-labor events.
"The fear is vocational education will just disappear," said SkillsUSA spokesman Thomas W. Holdsworth. "I can't believe employers in this country will just sit by and let it happen."
Federal grants for vocational education programs topped $1.3 billion this year, but the Bush administration has proposed cutting those grants to $1 billion for the 2004 school year.
More troubling to vocational educators is that the administration has proposed shifting much of the grant money from vocational training to programs meant to improve academic achievement.
The federal push to de-emphasize vocational training comes at a time when there is a national shortage of skilled workers and a growing demand for more training.
The National Association of Manufacturers predicted in April the need for 10 million new skilled workers by 2020, but said U.S. schools were not on pace to produce them.
"The education system is badly misaligned with the emerging needs of today's global economy," the association said.
Manufacturers association official Phyllis Eisen is slated to tour the competition floor Thursday and address organization and local business leaders at a luncheon.
Deputy secretaries from the federal departments of Labor and Education also are expected to attend the convention, and will meet privately with 15 business and industry executives to discuss funding issues.
Vivian McCormick, who is retiring after 12 years as Kansas chairwoman of SkillsUSA, said vocational training fills a need for people who aren't necessarily cut out for traditional higher education.
"The most powerful thing I've seen has been this organization's ability to turn students' lives around," she said. "College isn't for everyone."
Paul Light, a Missouri education official and state director of SkillsUSA, said there is a big demand for people with vocational training.
"Skilled workers are at a premium," Light said. "There are openings out there, and they are not at the minimum wage."
This is the 10th year the national competition is being conducted in Kansas City. An estimated 14,000 people are expected to participate this year.