An apprenticeship program with LCCC helped AJ Rose employee Nelson Rodriguez move from maintenance helper to supervising journeyman

Nelson Rodriguez never thought college would be part of his career journey.

“I was totally not the school type,” Rodriguez says. “I didn’t enjoy it.”

But in 2013 he started working as a maintenance helper at AJ Rose Manufacturing in Avon, and his perspective on what school meant began to change. Rodriguez, who lives in Lorain, handles day-to-day maintenance on AJ Rose’s enormous machines that stamp rolls and rolls of sheet metal into various automotive parts. If a part of the machine breaks down, he fixes it. If nothing is broken, he makes sure the machines are running as efficiently and effectively as possible in hopes of avoiding future breakdowns.

“It’s a big deal to keep things running at an optimal pace,” he says. “A little bit of grease will save you 10 hours later on down the road. The little things are important.”

The job suits Rodriguez, who enjoys working with his hands. And initially he thought it would keep him out of the classrooms he disliked. But after a few years, Rodriguez has been one of ten employees to ask AJ Rose leadership if he could go back to school to earn his journeyman card.

And this time, school was different.

Building the right program

AJ Rose enlisted the help of Lorain County Community College to create apprenticeship programs for their maintenance and toolroom employees. Molly Lucas, human resources manager for AJ Rose, says the company has worked with LCCC for decades on other training programs and knew the college would build programs that tailored to the skillsets their employees need.

“They came out to us, and we had meetings with the supervisors and managers of those departments, and we worked with LCCC to customize the classes and internal training to meet our needs,” Lucas says.

Chrissy Cooney, who’s responsible for business engagement at LCCC and met with the AJ Rose team, says this onboarding process helps the college identify the type of programs that would work best for the employer and employees. In AJ Rose’s case they decided on a State of Ohio registered apprenticeship program. Once the type of training program is selected, the LCCC team handles a multitude of processes from aligning standards to conducting employee placement testing to completing state-required progress filings.

“There are so many local businesses that want to send their employees back to school for training, but it puts the onus on the employer in terms of what type of program to create and how to handle it,” Cooney says. “We answer all those questions and then assume the work that would otherwise be an added strain on their human resource team, at no cost to the employer.”

Cooney says LCCC’s resources not only help the employer make training programs more feasible, but they help employees make completion more attainable.

“We want the students to be either at home, at work, or in class, not filling out paperwork or searching for a certain textbook. We do all that for them so all they need to focus on is succeeding,” Cooney says.

An engaging learning environment

Rodriguez started taking classes at LCCC in 2016, learning skills like PCL Logic programming, hydraulics, pneumatics and electrical circuits. He says every hour spent in the classroom has made him better at his job.

“You can turn a wrench; you can plug in a wire,” Rodriguez says. “But when you take the course and break it down from the beginning to the end, you understand torque and voltage. And understanding the mechanics behind what I’m doing saves time when I walk up to a problem and start troubleshooting.”

And Rodriguez found himself enjoying his time in class, learning from instructors who had life lessons to share.

“It was really nice to have these teachers who were in the trade, who experienced the same things that you’re experiencing,” he says. “It made it a better learning environment because you heard that story that wasn’t in the textbook, but it was on the subject.”

Support from his instructors and employer helped make a grueling schedule more bearable. Rodriguez would often leave work throughout the day to attend class, or head to campus before or after his shifts.

“You have to see the finish line to go through the apprenticeship program,” he says. “There were some pretty long days and there were no weekends because it was either work or it was school.”

“It was really nice to have these teachers who were in the trade, who experienced the same things that you’re experiencing.”
Nelson Rodriguez, LCCC apprenticeship program graduate

Just like Rodriguez kept his long-term goal in mind, Lucas says AJ Rose has made apprenticeship programs part of its current and future workforce development plans. The company can hire employees as helpers who then immediately start on-the-job training and apprenticeship classes at LCCC. As they progress in the apprenticeship program, they’re promoted to higher job classifications at the company.

“This is really important for AJ Rose,” Lucas says. “These programs help companies recruit, build and retain a highly-skilled workforce.”

Rodriguez, who is now a senior group leader in maintenance and a maintenance mechanic journeyman, is a perfect example of retention success. He says upward mobility at AJ Rose has helped solidify his commitment to the company.

“I’ve been here almost a decade; this is the longest that I’ve been employed with one facility at a time,” he says. “This company treats me very well and I’d like to keep moving forward.”

And the maintenance journeyman who once said he wasn’t the school type, plans to continue his education.

“After I got the wheels turning, I enjoyed it and I want to keep it moving,” he says. “My next step is to pursue my associate degree in mechanical maintenance with LCCC.”