Sunday, April 21, 2024

High stakes at strenuous Skills Canada-NL competitions

March 15 is Skilled Career Day in Newfoundland and Labrador, and for nearly 400 secondary and post-secondary students throughout the province it’s sure to be a tense but rewarding experience.

Students will put their skills to the test in more than 40 areas of competition, from carpentry and industrial mechanics to baking and mobile robotics.

CNA students, and secondary students planning to enroll at CNA, can earn $500 toward tuition and books by winning one of this week’s competitions, with CNA graduates receiving a $250 prize. Winners will also enjoy a trip to Quebec City in May to represent the province at the Skills Canada National Competition. There, incoming and current CNA students can earn an award toward the cost of tuition and books worth $1,000 for gold, $750 for silver, and $500 for bronze medals. CNA grads are eligible for a cash prize instead.

With valuable awards up for grabs, the competition can be fierce. Robert Swain, a Computer Systems and Networking student in his second year at Prince Philip Drive campus, knows that better than most.

“I had a friend who graduated a few years ago from the same program I’m doing and he went to Skills nationals twice, and always spoke super highly of the competition,” said Swain. “He told me it was an amazing learning experience, plus a great asset to have on your resume. I had always thought of doing the competition, but my choice was obvious when I was recommended to compete by instructors. I was also doing much better in my classes than I had expected when I started the program, so I decided to keep pushing myself. I figured the worst that could happen is I lose, and I still get to put it on my resume that I competed.”

Swain certainly did not lose.

He won last year’s provincial competition in IT Network Systems Administration and went on to represent CNA and the province at the national competition in Winnipeg. He knew it would be demanding, with four three-hour sessions spread over a grinding two days. But he was not prepared for the bitter disappointment and incredible triumph to come.

The first day of the national competition started well enough with a three-hour session for Windows System Administration.

“The Windows session comprised of essentially a simulated version of setting up a network like we have here at the college,” he explained, making it sound easy. “So, for example, there are certain resources on the network that only instructors can access, stuff only staff can access, and so on. This session comprised of setting up those kinds of things. There were also more technical things, like setting things up so every computer got an appropriate IP address and could only communicate with certain members of the server.”

Swain felt optimistic after that first session, but disaster struck in the afternoon. He had not yet completed his Advanced Linux Server Administration course, and the next session was for exactly that.

“The afternoon session with Linux is where I really took a hit,” he said. “I was just so unfamiliar with the tasks I was being asked to do that I ended up only submitting enough work to give me a two per cent. I left feeling so discouraged, depressed, disappointed.”

Swain tried to console himself with the knowledge that he at least won a trip to Winnipeg, but still couldn’t hold back the tears once he got back to his hotel room.

“I spent most of my evening staring at the ceiling, thinking of everything I could’ve done better,” he said. “After some time though, I realized that I’d already come this far. Even if I got zero per cent in the entire competition, I already won Provincials as a first-year student, and that in itself was something to be proud of. I realized also that in the IT field, there will be days where work just destroys you, and that this is just a bump in the road.”

The next day, he destroyed the competition instead.

Swain competed in the three-hour morning session for Windows Troubleshooting, and had the skills and stamina to persevere through the three-hour Networking session that afternoon. Despite only adding two per cent to his score in the Linux Server Administration session, Swain did so exceptionally well in the other three categories that he walked away from the Skills Canada National Competition with a bronze medal. 

Robert Swain shows off his bronze medal.

“I was ecstatic,” he said. “I immediately received an outpouring of love from my family, who were all watching the live stream at home. Even months after the fact, I run into people I haven’t seen in years who will congratulate me on my accomplishments. It feels incredible.”

Swain said competing in Skills Canada competitions has been life changing, giving him the confidence to always keep pushing himself. He hopes that his success inspires other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to work toward a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities.

“I stopped trying for a long time,” he said. “Before I entered this program in 2022, I had done nothing with myself since I finished high school in 2014. No matter how hopeless you think you may be, you can always pull yourself out of it.”

Swain is hoping to do even better this year as one of the nearly 400 students competing at the Skills Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador provincial competition. And this time he’s very familiar with Linux.

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Ryan Crocker
Ryan Crocker
Ryan is CNA's Manager of Communications. A graduate of CNA's Journalism program, Ryan worked as a journalist for more than a decade, winning multiple awards, before transitioning to marketing and communications. He returned to his alma mater in 2023 and contributes articles to CNA Currents working closely with Editor Ryanne McIsaac.

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