When Juana Rodriguez sat down in her first welding class at Elgin Community College in January 2011, everything started out fine. Her professor introduced himself and told the students about his experience.
Then the class turned to welding terms -- a very technical vocabulary set.
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"I thought, 'Where am I?' What am I doing here?'" Rodriguez recalls.
Rodriguez is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and though she is at the point in her life where she has lived in the U.S. for more years than her home country, English is still her second language. The yearlong welding certificate course at ECC was stressful for the Elgin woman, as was the certification exam from the college and the one she had to take at Elgin Sweeper before she was hired.
But now she is one of three female welders -- out of 200 -- at Elgin Sweeper.
Rodriguez and her classmate and now co-worker Luz Gonzalez, also of Elgin, both finished a certification course at ECC in December 2011 with support from the Integrated Career and Academic Prep System. I-CAPS is a grant-funded program that offers basic skills support to students in vocational certificate programs. Beside welding, ECC offers computer numerical control, HVAC and dental office aid certificates under the I-CAPS structure.
Pete Almeida, ECC's I-CAPS program coordinator, said an additional instructor sits in on the career technical classes and then teaches a second class focusing on English, reading, writing and math that relates to the specific field.
"It's additional support for students that may not historically have been able to complete these classes on their own," Almeida said.
Rodriguez and Gonzalez also both benefited from the outreach by Almeida to local employers, including Elgin Sweeper, through the I-CAPS program.
Sylvia Irizarry, human resources representative at Elgin Sweeper, said ECC is the company's primary college contact for its Elgin location. She calls Almeida whenever Elgin Sweeper is looking to hire -- and when that was true last spring, Irizarry said the company was happy to have two female applicants.
"This is a male-dominated job," Irizarry said. "We just wanted to have more diversity."
Neither Rodriguez nor Gonzalez had welding experience before taking ECC's course. Many employers were looking to hire only those with prior welding work. But once both women passed Elgin Sweeper's certification test, they were hired without it.
"They gave me the opportunity to learn more," Gonzalez said. "And it's a job that I like."
Gonzalez had worked at Head Start and in an electronics factory before her current position. She said she enjoys the second shift, which gives her a chance to get her 6- and 8-year-old kids up for school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon before going to work.
Rodriguez, on the first shift, welds the floor and side walls of "air hoppers" for street sweepers that are used all over the country and the world. Other employees in the massive workshop add other parts to the machine, paint it and mount it on a truck before it is ready to leave the warehouse for places like Cleveland, Ohio; Kitchener, Ontario, and the Israeli Air Force Base.