Carpentry champions setting bar early

FMHS senior Dakota Leonard poses with a sample of the project that won the Fort Madison High School carpentry team a first-place finish at the state competition in Des Moines on Friday. Other team members were Elijah Barnes, Trent Kruse, Victor Gonzales and Tyler Wellman.



FORT MADISON – Measure twice, cut once. It’s what your dad and grandpa always taught you in the garage.

But for a group of Fort Madison High School students, this isn’t your grandpa’s garage.

Five Fort Madison carpentry students Elijah Barnes, Tyler Wellman, Dakota Leonard, Victor Gonzales and Trent Kruse competed in the Iowa High School Carpentry State Competition Friday in Des Moines at the state fairgrounds.

FMHS Carpentry instructor Clint Kobelt said this is only the fourth year of the program at the high school and only the third year the school competed at the state level.

“We went up the first year to just observe. We really didn’t know what it was,” Kobelt said Wednesday. “But we went last year and that was our first year to compete. It was the same format but a different build and we ended up 2nd. The team that beat us was Sioux Center, a western Iowa school. It was actually kinda neat, we were No. 1 and 2 last year so they set us up next to each other and everyone was aware of the other.”

The format of the competition is a very structured 6-hour build and Kobelt said the Fort Madison team planned the right strategy and executed based on a team strategy with a focus on quality.

“You walk in and they give you a packet that contains blueprints and all the specs you need to do the project and a stack of lumber,” he said. “They give you just enough lumber to build the project and they engineer some flaws into the specifications. They have you build things the way that you wouldn’t normally build it. So you can’t just go up there in auto pilot and just build. They push you out of our comfort zone a little bit.”

What Kobelt, who was a former 20-year general contractor before coming to FMHS,  saw as very valuable was the environment of the competition and how it was set up by the industry to showcase the students’ talents to the industry itself.

“Interesting thing is that it you have this high school division, but the same time in this building you also have the skilled trade apprentices that are testing and they have a competition. So you’ve got guys out of the industry working side-by-side with the high school competitors,” he said.

The event is sponsored by the Association of Builders and Contractors (ABC) and this is the third year they’ve sponsored the event.

“There is also industry that comes in – contractors, across the board, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, heavy and  highway guys and they set up booths so there’s that interaction and you’re getting face time with potential employers,” Kobelt said standing in the FMHS Construction classroom.

“What is really neat, and the comparison I like to make, is that you have high school kids there showing off their talents and you have industry coming to watch. It levels out the balance of power. Instead of the 18-year-old going to the potential employer –  that’s the little guy coming to see the big buy. We flip the script and they’re coming to watch. I liken it to the NFL combine. These (students) are in their wheelhouse showcasing their skills and the coaches, or employers, are coming to watch you and they’re scouting.  It’s a comfortable environment.”

Senior Dakota Leonard said the event was fun and has him possibly looking at a career in carpentry or construction after high school.

“It was fun. Going through it and what not,” Leonard said.  “We practiced before we went up there for about a week. But we’d already taken the class so we had the knowledge.”

Leonard said the time factor wasn’t that much of an issue, but sometimes time was moving fast and others it was moving slow.

“Not everyone was working at the same time, so that seemed to make things slow down a bit, but other than it went by pretty quickly.” he said.

Leonard said the team excelled because everyone looked at something different than someone else did and that helped the team analyze the project and overcome the obstacles built into the project.

For example, at one point someone cut the sheeting a little short for the project but after collaboration among the team, the error was corrected and didn’t penalize the team.

“Me and Wellman helped on the front wall and where the door was and we were handling the math, but most math was on the sidewalls where Victor was because he’s really good at the math,” Leonard said.

Principal Greg Smith said he was very impressed last year when they took second losing by just two points.

“Oh my gosh in just a two year span they are best in the state and there are no classes in that competition all levels of high schools, so I’m more than excited about that program.”

Kobelt said the key in the competition is to plan the work and work the plan.

“It’s a 6-hour build so you get to see who plans well, who executes well, who can hold that pace, who gets rattled by the ticking of the clock. When the group next to you seems to be advancing faster, does it rattle you, get you off your game plan?  And that’s what happened to some teams. They were behind and got rattled and made some mistakes.  They were going for quantity not quality. Out of the 12 only 6 completed the build. We finished with only a few minutes left on the clock.”

He said the community and support from industry in this area is what has made the program so successful in such a short time.

“We’re very fortunate in that the community and administration are very supportive of our program,” Kobelt said. We’ve worked in the community and with Mike Mohrfeld at Green Oaks and we’ve framed up a house a year.”

“This program is only in it’s fourth year. That’s what made coming to FM attractive to me. I was a general contractor for 20 years and one of the things I struggled with was finding available workforce. Not a lot of young guys were getting into the business so I came here and had a frank conversation with the district and said this isn’t going to be the old school birdhouse and stepstool program. We were gonna try and help transition these kids into the industry. They were on board and very supportive.”

“We have these guys out there doing real world work. At the end of the day we don’t tear it down and restart. We start over with the next group. You drive down the road and see that home you helped build you don’t forget that. That’s a sense of pride for these kids.”

“What the five guys did to their credit was the division of labor. We went in and they put a guy on the saw, one guy cutting, a couple laying out, one building… just everyone was in constant motion. We had a pregame huddle and just rolled into the project. The cadence they established and being able to stay on point is what put them over the top.”

One of the things that put FM in front is that teams had to be able to pull the structure in two parts without compromising the structural integrity and the FMHS team was the only one that was able to be separated, which Kobelt said is the main reason the the Fort Madison team won.

The competition is scored on a 200-point grading scale based on safety, accuracy to blueprint, doors and windows being dimensionally correct, structural integrity and the ability to separate it and not compromise the structure,” Kobelt said.

Schools participating in the competition were Norwalk, Southeast Polk,Union, Knoxville, Williamsburg, Keokuk, Sioux Center (defending champion), Pella, AHSTW, Central, Union and Missouri Valley.

Members of the Fort Madison Community High School carpentry team pose for a picture after capturing first place in the statewide high school competition.


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