Dowless, a Dept. of Transportation employee at White Lake, is also a student at Bladen Community College. He recently won the state competition in metalwork in the post secondary school division of the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) program.
While high school and junior high programs are fairly well known, college VICA programs are less well known, but even more competitive.
Most events are more technically oriented than those in secondary school programs, requiring the more advanced skills taught in technical schools.
"Basically, I was told to build something from scratch," Dowless said. "They gave me the materials and a blueprint."
Contestants are judged on workmanship and time required to complete the assignment.
Dowless and his wife Meredith live near Dublin. She is a schoolteacher.
Dowless spent six years in the U.S. Army as a reconnaissance specialist. He served in Bosnia and Kuwait, as well as in Alaska and other places.
Reconnaissance specialists are trained to go deep into enemy lines and gather information about troop movements and other activity. "Creeping around" in the wilderness of Alaska during training led to some "exciting moments," Dowless said.
"Sometimes you'd go right up on something big and angry," he said, laughing. "That's when you learn to get out of a place faster than you went in."
Despite the honor of being tapped to represent Bladen County and the state in the national VICA championships, Dowless said he is most proud of his service in the Army.
"I'm a proud American," he said. "I'm proud to have served my country, and I don't deny it."
He said his instructors at BCC are the biggest reason he'll compete against the best vocational students in the country in June.
"I couldn't have done it without Edward Dent and Al Hester," he said. "They really helped make it happen for me."
Hester said Dowless is an outstanding student and worker.
"We are very proud of him," Hester said. "Here's a young man with a full time job, he's gone back to school, is married and building a house. You don't find many people like that these days. You have to appreciate his hard work and dedication."
Hester said the BCC welding program includes training in cutting and joining different kinds of metal, including stainless steel and aluminum.
"You can't just come in and decide, 'I'm going to be a welder,'" he said. "It takes some skill and training, and dedication. Clayton has no problem with any of that."