For some students, academics and their scholastic future are what drive them to succeed in high school. For others, it’s sports or drama or music.

But for many students in Helena, learning trade skills is what keeps them in school.

Capital Principal Elisabeth Hudnutt says the trade programs offer enrichment for students as well as workforce training for an immediate career path, too.

“The kids coming out of these programs have a unique opportunity to walk into the job field with fabulous training,” she said.

Students from Helena’s two high schools recently competed in the SkillsUSA Montana State Conference claiming a few top places. SkillsUSA is the only national organization for students who are involved in technical, skilled and service-based careers. Students not only learn technical skills associated with the particular trades, but they also learn leadership, teamwork and self-confidence.

The competition is traditionally held at Montana State University-Northern in Havre, but for the first time, the milling portion of the competition was held at Capital High because of the Haas milling equipment the school has acquired — thanks to successful grant applications by teacher Jim Weber.

But that didn’t get senior Justin Hudyma out of making the road trip. Even though he was only allowed to compete in one event, Hudyma organized the event as the state president of SkillsUSA and helped run the three-day competition.

The 18-year-old senior who plans to attend Montana State University this fall to study mechanical engineering took third in CNC milling technology.

Hudyma became mechanically inclined at a young age and his curiosity to learn how things work motivated him to pursue the field.

“I used to take apart electronics and see what they are made of,” he said.

A VHS tape got suck in the family’s VCR when he was 4 and he took it apart and repaired it; it worked, and he never told his mother. When he was about 10, his grandpa taught him how to bleed brakes on a vehicle.

“Now it’s to the point where I can fix the family cars,” Hudyma said.

Last year he fabricated a barbecue, and this year he’s working on an aluminum fly reel.

“These classes prepare you for the future,” he said, adding that he likes making something that’s going to get used.

Capital senior Troy Merriman feels similar to Hudyma with more of a financial twist.

“I like being able to make something without paying someone else,” the 17-year-old said.

Merriman has taken a skilled trade class or two every year of his high school career including carpentry, industrial tech and welding I, II and III. However, this was the first year he competed at the SkillsUSA state competition. He came in fourth, right behind Hudyma.

While he won’t necessarily use these skills immediately — he plans to enlist in the Army or the Marine Corps — Merriman says they’ll likely come in handy when he becomes a homeowner.

In previous years of high school he’s participated more in sports — football, swimming and track — but this year he opted to focus more on trade skills.

“Sports aren’t going to take me anywhere — skilled trades will,” he said.

Helena High School senior Brittany Belgarde is one of just a handful of girls who compete.

“It doesn’t bother me,” she said of being in the female minority. “I think it’s cool — I’m not really a girly girl at all.”

 The 18-year-old took first place in collision repair technology. She also took first in job interviewing and chapter display. Belgarde sat through a mock interview where she was applying to be a welder’s assistant.

“These are skills I’ll use forever,” Belgarde said. “It will help me in the future so I won’t be nervous.”

Merriman says the trades classes keep some of his friends in school.

“When someone does something they like, they are more likely to have fun and stay with it, unlike a mandatory class that really nobody wants to do,” he said.

Hudyma says many of his peers would have dropped out without skilled trade classes.

“These skills are needed in the world — it’s still a growing field,” he said.

Capital auto technology teacher Eric Croft agrees.

“There are some students that don’t excel academically but do (excel) in the hands-on fields,” Croft said. “Some go right into the industry, others go to a post-secondary college, and others end up in engineering programs — it really depends on the student.”

Tom Jungst came to work for the University of Montana-Helena because of the relationship it fosters with high school students.

“It’s pretty unique in the state and in the country,” the computer aided manufacturing instructor said.

“I go over there and their students come over to me,” Jungst said of Capital. “We collaborate.”

Jungst launched and operated a successful product design and manufacturing company in Bozeman before he started his teaching career.

“This is where I looked for employees,” he said.

Jungst credits the skill of Weber, not only as a technician but also as a teacher, to the caliber of students coming out the program in Helena.

“I’ve known him for many years and I was supportive of the program before I even thought about teaching,” he said. “I benefit from his efforts. (Students) are already excited about it and have been exposed to it at a real high level. The collaboration is a benefit for us all and we are hoping to build on Jim and that model to more high schools.”

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or






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