Karleigh Johnson Has Her Eyes on SkillsUSA National Gold 

Karleigh Johnson, left, a student at Rateree Career Development Center, with her teacher, Felix Cano, at SkillsUSA Regionals.

High school senior Karleigh Johnson at Ratteree Career Development Center (RCDC) in Irving, TX, is a SkillsUSA star. She took the gold medal at the SkillsUSA district competition in February, held in Waco, TX, and then captured first place at the state finals in Corpus Christi, TX.

Johnson was the sole female participant in the collision repair technician competition at state and now is headed for SkillsUSA Nationals, June 19-23 in Atlanta, GA.

Johnson’s instructor at RCDC, Felix Cano, is proud of his prize pupil. She is his only student to reach the national competition this year, of five who competed at the district level. Cano has 52 students in his collision repair program at RCDC, five of whom are young women.

The SkillsUSA Nationals are like the Super Bowl of high school collision repair, and Cano is a well-known top teacher and coach. He is competitive himself, so whenever Cano has a contender like Johnson, he’s thrilled. He is delighted with Johnson’s presentation to date, and anticipates a strong performance in the nationals.

When she isn’t in class, Johnson works at Toyota of Irving as a technician, where they are also enamored with her work.

When he was a tech student, Cano entered SkillsUSA and performed admirably, though he wasn’t able to get past the state level. He told himself one day he would get a student to take the whole thing. One of his students, Hector Martinez, won the state competition his first year, but a technicality kept him from going to nationals. The next year, Martinez finished second in the state, just like Cano.

And then in 2000, Cano finally found his collision star, a student named Geronimo Medrano, who won nationals under Cano’s tutelage. “He was a special kid and now he is doing well out in the industry, which is so satisfying,” Cano said.

For the past 23 years, Cano has been looking for his second champion, and Johnson may be the answer.

SkillsUSA is a national membership association serving high school, college and middle school students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including collision repair. It’s is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. SkillsUSA helps each student excel.

More than 340,000 students and advisors join SkillsUSA each year, organized into more than 19,000 local chapters and 52 state and territorial associations. In 2017-18, 19,500 teachers served as professional members and SkillsUSA advisors. Combining alumni membership, the total number reached annually is more than 421,000. SkillsUSA has served more than 13.5 million members since its founding in 1965.

More than 600 business, industry and labor organizations actively support SkillsUSA at the national level through financial aid, in-kind contributions and involvement of their people in SkillsUSA activities. Many more work directly with state associations and local chapters. Commitment by industry to the annual national SkillsUSA Championships is valued at more than $36 million.

The initial meeting between Cano and Johnson was random and wonderful.

“She was watching us weld and doing body work during the third week of the class,” Cano said. “She asked 'Could I be in your class?' and I asked why. She said, 'I know how to do mechanical already, and I want to learn collision repair now.' She was direct and very respectful and I had a sense that she would be a good student. She is smart and wants to learn---everything you could want in a student.”

Cano sensed something with Johnson that intrigued him immediately, he said.

“Some students don’t want to compete, but Karleigh has those killer eyes," Cano said. "When she decides to solve a problem or take on a challenge, she will succeed. That’s why I thought she would do well in the SkillsUSA competition, because she is a competitor and comes prepared.”

Cano always trains his students to compete, on top of the knowledge and skills he shares with every student about fixing and painting cars.

“Karleigh is already doing the same things professionally at Toyota of Irving, so it’s not going to be that much different," he said. "I always tell all of my SkillsUSA students to focus carefully on every detail; get everything done right the first time and take what I have taught you into practice.”

There will be a bigger crowd at nationals, but Johnson does not seem to be nervous when she thinks about her upcoming trip to Atlanta.

“When I get up there, I have the ability to stay calm,” she said. “I don’t get hyped up and I go with the flow. Mr. Cano tells me to stay cool and do my best.”

Hopefully her best will bring her the gold, she said.

“I have been training for this for so long and learned so much along the way," Johnson said. "Winning the SkillsUSA Nationals would help me in college and lead to other opportunities---so I am definitely excited!”

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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