Electrical Systems Student Headed to Nashville for Chance to Win $40,000

Rob Goldberg | December 6th, 2021

Photo collage of tools and prizes Alex Harrell won for posting the top score in North Carolina for the IDEAL Tool Challenge and Harrell displaying the award he received for advancing to the competition finals in Tennessee.

WINTERVILLE—At a time when many are seeking the perfect gifts for loved ones and dreaming of a white Christmas, Pitt Community College student Alex Harrell has the perfect present in mind and is hoping Christmas comes early.

In a little more than a week, Harrell will be boarding a plane bound for Nashville, Tenn., where the 20-year-old will compete in the 2021 IDEAL National Championship Finals for a chance to win $40,000. While that’s an amazing payout for anyone, it’d be especially nice for a student who works as a helper at Pitt Electric by day—to get hours needed to become an electrician—and takes Electrical Systems Technology courses at night.

“I am very excited to go to Nashville, because I have always loved country music,” Harrell says. “I am a little nervous, because I know it’s going to be great competition.”

Sponsored by IDEAL Tools & Supplies, the championship will feature some of the country’s most-talented current and future electricians putting their skills and workmanship on display at Music City Center Dec. 15-17. In addition to the top prize, Harrell and roughly 60 of his peers competing in the event’s Student/Apprentice category could win $20,000 for a second-place finish or $10,000 for coming in third.

Joe Strickland, a PCC Electrical Systems Technology faculty member, is Harrell’s instructor and will accompany his student to Nashville. Strickland says he’s been working with Harrell on techniques that should be needed to excel in the three events he’ll compete in this month but added that the championship differs each year. One thing that is for certain, though, is the high level of competition Harrell will face when he gets to Tennessee.

“The competition is really challenging,” Strickland said. “Some competitors have been working in the [electrical] field for a while but decided to enroll in an apprenticeship program, so now they get to qualify as students.”

Strickland says Harrell will vie against the top 60 individuals enrolled in apprenticeships at community colleges, technical trade schools, or national electrical union programs.

“Normally, they have as many as 20,000 across the USA try out and only take the top one from each state, along with last year’s winners and a few wildcards, so it ends up being like 62 people,” he said.

A Greenville resident and 2020 graduate of D.H. Conley High School, Harrell has been taking Electrical Systems courses at PCC since he was a high school junior. He says his goal is to earn an associate degree in Electrical Systems Technology from Pitt and become a foreman at an electrical company or perhaps “branch off someday and do my own thing.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Harrell says he is excited about the opportunity to compete in Nashville and grateful for Strickland’s tutelage. Winning would “feel amazing,” he said, adding that it certainly wouldn’t “hurt” to claim the cash prize as well.

By qualifying for the national championship, Harrell has already won a $1,650-prize package that includes round-trip air transportation to Nashville, a three-night stay in a “Music City” hotel, meals, and ground transportation to and from the airport and event location. It’s the reward he received for posting the top score in North Carolina in a qualifying event held at PCC and recorded by Strickland for verification purposes.

To qualify for nationals, Harrell had to wire a three-way switch circuit, using a combination of tools (screwdriver, wire strippers and linesman pliers or IDEAL’s new forged heavy-duty wire stripper), Armourband insulating wraps, and either Twister Proflex or Twister Proflex Mini wire connectors. Scoring was based on the amount of time it took to complete the challenge, overall workmanship and safety, with each state’s top scorer advancing to the finals.

“I was kind of surprised honestly,” Harrell said of posting the state’s best score. “Normally, I am not a top contender, and I figured someone would beat me. I’m glad I was wrong.”

This will be the fifth year the IDEAL championships have been held. In addition to the student/apprentice competition, the annual event features a category for professional electricians and a team competition in which professionals partner with students.

All of the action that takes place in Music City Center will be recorded and aired nationally at a later date, typically on ESPN 2.

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