Some of Michael Chausse’s earliest memories include marveling at Matchbox cars and tractors when he was 3 years old.
Now, the Red Bud High School alum has some pretty serious hardware to show off for working on cars.
Chausse placed fifth at the 2021 Skills USA National Leadership and Skills Conference in automotive service technology after being named a state gold medalist.
When Career Center of Southern Illinois Automotive Service Instructor Greg Baird introduced the Skills USA program in class, Chausse did not plan to become a member, let alone earn such high honors.
“It’s kind of a funny story because at the very beginning of the year when our teacher Mr. Baird was pitching Skills to us all … I kind of brushed it off for a little bit,” Chausse said. “Then I came home and was telling mom and dad about it, and they were like, ‘You should try it and see what happens.’”
After going through the required steps to be a Skills USA member, Chausse entered regional competition. Baird said regionals is usually a hands-on competition but due to COVID-19, it along with other steps in the competition had to be done virtually. This year, it included a qualifying exam and career readiness test, both done via computer.
Baird said this qualifying exam was equivalent to the Automotive Service Excellence test those in the industry take every five years to keep their certifications.
He estimated approximately 200 students competed in this year’s regional competition. Chausse placed first, and then moved on with approximately 40 others to state competition, 11 of which were fellow CCSI automotive service students.
The Illinois State Leadership and Skills Conference tested participants in categories such as engines, breaks, precision measuring and interview skills through various virtual formats, including an assessment tool from Electude.
Chausse vividly remembers the day he found he was the state’s gold medalist via a YouTube live stream.
“I’m sitting down in my room, I’ve got the TV turned on and I’m putting away laundry or something with the YouTube video playing over my headphones. I’m just listening to it and it gets to automotive service technology … and the guy reading the results goes, ‘From CCSI in Red Bud, Illinois, (third place) is Aiden Albert,’ who is one of the kids in my class. Then second place was somebody (from a different school), and I’m like, ‘Oh shoot, I didn’t place in state’ because, again, I didn’t expect to get first,” Chausse recounts. “Then he reads off, ‘First place from CCSI, Michael Chausse!’ I totally didn’t expect it.”
The national competition consisted of the first place winners from each participating state or territory, and once again, Skills USA found a way to make the three-day virtual competition hands-on. Big-name companies such as Snap On Tools and A-tech sent equipment to the competitors to mimic working on an actual car as best as possible.
One of the big events was the engine performance station, which used Snap On’s equipment, Baird said.
“The best way to describe it is a video game of a car not running and you’re able to take parts off, change parts, diagnose (problems) and check parts using various equipment and diagnostic tools, but just in a virtual world,” Baird explained.
While Chausse said it was a bit strange knowing he was not working with a real car, the nationals mock job interview he participated in over Zoom carried the largest learning curve.
“It is, as you would imagine, different working on a car on a computer than it is working on a car that is in front of you, but the job interview part on the computer was definitely weird because you can’t walk in and shake somebody’s hand and it’s hard to read people over the computer,” Chausse said.
Baird said the high placements of many of his students, including Chausse, during a year of such uncertainty in every area of academics speaks a lot to their character. Chausse went to CCSI nearly every day since school let out for summer to practice for nationals.
“This would have been an easy year for high schoolers to say, ‘You know what, I’m not doing anything extra and I’m not paying my dues to be involved in this organization,’” Baird said. “But, for those students who did it, who tried their hardest, prepared and did very well, it just shows their (strong) work ethic. To me … it shows the students’ perseverance.”
He also stressed the nature of the competition – led by volunteers from big-name companies like Toyota USA, Snap On and Hunter Engineering – ensures competitors will succeed in the field.
“There’s a lot of industry involved and why that’s such a good thing is it makes the contest valid,” Baird said. “If the industry is putting on the contest, then you know they know exactly what the students need to know (in the field). I like it because if you do well in Skills, you’re going to do well in the industry because it’s aligned with industry standards from regionals all the way up to the nationals.”
Chausse is already reaping the benefits of his success in Skills USA, as he went from sweeping floors and changing car tires at Red Bud’s V8 Speed and Resto Shop to doing bigger maintenance projects.
His work at Red Bud was not his first introduction to auto body restoration. After admiring classic cars since he was a young boy, Chausse began restoring his first vehicle when he was around 15 years old.
“My first vehicle was a 1982 Chevy truck that we found for sale in Red Bud for like $1,800. I brought it home and I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing … because I didn’t know anything about cars at all,” Chausse said. “My uncle is a mechanic in St. Louis, so I asked him a lot about it, and I just watched a bunch of YouTube videos on how to do body work (and) how to fix mechanical stuff that was wrong with it. So, I actually fixed all the rust on the truck and painted it in my garage. It came out looking pretty decent for somebody that didn’t really know what they were doing.”
Chausse said while moving through all three levels of the competition has taught him a lot, the humble teen said one of the biggest lessons was to not rule out opportunities, as, in his words, “sometimes you surprise yourself.”
“I would say the best advice I can give to somebody is if you see an opportunity for something – anything at all that you think you would like to do or even would be interested in doing – take that opportunity because you never know where it’s going to bring you. It might bring you to being fifth in the nation in that area. You never know,” Chausse said.