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Zion man learns special skills through On-the-Job program

Doug Rodriguez 30 Ziwelder-in-training Duroweld Lake Bluff talks about his On-the-Job training experience with U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider. | Judy

Doug Rodriguez, 30, of Zion, a welder-in-training at Duroweld in Lake Bluff, talks about his On-the-Job training experience with U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media

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About the LEARN Act

The LEARN Act authorizes the Department of Labor to award competitive grants to support local On-the-Job training programs.

Nearly 80 percent of participants were still employed at their training sites or in other jobs nine months after having completed the program, according to a 2011 Department of Labor report.

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Updated: February 9, 2014 2:45AM

After the mortgage market collapsed in 2008 and the construction industry shriveled, carpenter Doug Rodriquez of Zion struggled to earn a living.

Today he’s working in steel and cast iron, not wood, and earning a solid wage and benefits. He is also earning a more secure future through On-the-Job, a federal program administered locally through the federal Workforce Development Act that helps defray the cost of training.

“It’s a steady job, a lot to learn, and pretty exciting. I love it,” said Rodriquez, 30, who is honing advanced welding skills at his 40-hour-a-week job at Lake Bluff-based Duroweld and through 10 hours of weekly coursework at the College of Lake County.

Rodriguez, wearing a long work apron and goggles, last week stepped from behind a large metal grate at his workstation to show-off the heavy, decorative, custom railings he welded that will soon be installed along Chicago’s Riverside Plaza.

“Three hundred pieces and they all have to be perfect,” Rodriguez said.

“Because we’re a lower volume shop, it’s important you get each piece right the first time,” said Duroweld owner Rich Austen.

Under On-the-Job training, the Lake County Workforce Development Board uses state and federal funds to pay half the cost of Rodriguez’s training.

“We’re a niche business,” Austen said. “We have requirements for employees with very special skills. Without On-the-Job training, it would be very difficult to find somebody who possesses those skills.”

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider toured Duroweld on Dec. 6 to highlight the LEARN Act, which he introduced last month. The bipartisan bill would expand On-the-Job training programs for Americans looking for work. Elected in 2012, Schneider said he has heard a consistent message from manufacturers: “We’re looking for people but we can’t find the skills we need.”

“The employer takes a risk on an employee,” said Schneider, an industrial engineer and member of the House Small Business Committee, who in February introduced the AMERICA Works Act, also aimed at closing the skills gap.

“Duroweld has an investment in Doug, and Lake County is able to share in that investment,” Schneider said. “That’s a win, win, win. It’s good for Doug. It’s good for Duroweld − take it to a macro level and you have thousands nationwide who are able to contribute, able to help grow the economy.”

At CLC, Rodriguez is working toward certification in welding. He is currently studying blueprints and mathematics and his on-the-job training gives him an edge.

“I get more time on the machines than anyone else,” said Rodriguez, who is earning $15 an hour at Duroweld. “Without training and school, there’s no way somebody could just come in and do this work. It’s not just picking up a welding gun. You have to learn how to work with different metals, all the different types of welds. It’s laser and plasma cutting. It’s a lot more involved than I realized.”

Founded in 1981, Duroweld makes streetscape fixtures, ornamentation and signage for places like Ravinia Festival, the University of Chicago and Chicago’s Gold Coast, as well as many industrial products.

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