As Waukegan resident and U.S. Navy veteran Marquis Brown sat in a class at Lake County College looking for a career change due to the coronavirus pandemic, the potential employer was talking to students and handing out business cards.
Brown was completing an eight-week course toward certification as an HVAC technician about a year ago when Mike Rodriguez, owner of Waukegan-based Northeast Illinois Heating and Air Conditioning, spoke to the class and presented his card.
“He was giving us a speech and passing his papers,” Brown said. “I took one, decided to call him, told him I was interested and he hired me.”
Brown is one of more than 250 students who have received degrees or credentials through the college’s Transform Lake County Scholarship Program, which began its fourth year of funding in December to help people launch a career or find a new job.
The scholarship program is designed as a pipeline that places people in the workforce in high-paying, high-paying jobs, said Jesús Ruiz, dean of the Lakeshore Campus in downtown Waukegan. Courses can last from a few months to a year.
New this year are certifications in Welding, Becoming a Fiber Optic Technician and Cyber Security. Ruiz said they join courses that lead to jobs such as auto mechanics, vehicle collision repair, HVAC, medical office assistants, nursing assistants and phlebotomy.
Scholarships are far-reaching, Ruiz said. Besides tuition, equipment, and tools, emergency support is available if the student has other family or personal needs, such as transportation assistance. Over 90% of students have been placed into the 2024 program.
“We work with car dealerships in Lake County,” Ruiz said. “This is where we get cars for students to work on. Dealers hire our students.”
Ricky Bueno of Waukegan is a recent graduate of the auto mechanics program, and landed a position with a local Toyota dealership a week after completion. He said he was working a minimum wage job when he learned about the scholarships.
Starting with less complex tasks, Bueno now changes oil on cars, balances wheels, and spins tires. He said he is receiving ongoing training from the dealership that will eventually enable him to become a Toyota expert, as well as master more advanced skills.
“I’m going to learn how to work the brakes and suspension,” Bueno said. “I’m going to learn more and more about being a mechanic. It gives me an opportunity for raises and overtime. It gives me an opportunity to grow with the company.”
Stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes, Brown said he left the Navy after 4 1/2 years of service in 2018. As a civilian, he was working as an emergency medical technician when he decided he needed a job change.
“COVID has kind of made me want to find a way out of the medical field,” Brown said. “HVAC has always been something people will need. It’s a skill I can do anywhere. It’s the same anywhere. You just have to keep up with the changes.”
Funded through the Illinois Community College Board, Ruiz said interested individuals should apply online. They will then be contacted for an interview. The scholarships are for people in places that are considered “areas of need,” which includes Waukegan, North Chicago, Zion, and Round Lake.
Participants cannot be employed, Ruiz said, or their income must be below the federal poverty level. This standard is $15,000 annually for an individual, $19,000 for a married couple and $30,000 for a family of four.
While there are a variety of ways to fund the training needed to transition into a new career, Brown said the Transform Lake County Scholarship was an ideal way to do that for him. It guarantees a softer landing when the study is completed.
“I didn’t want to be owed any money when I was done,” Brown said. “I didn’t want any debt.