South Chicago, IL
From the outside, Jay Wasilewski’s workplace seems remote and removed, off in a hard-to-find industrial park in a suburb of South Chicago. But inside, it feels more intimate and familiar — like a workshop from a science fiction movie. To enter the single room workspace where Jay presides, you have to shimmy around a large industrial fan blowing cold air. Jay’s strong presence takes up a good portion of what’s left of the area, after the tools, raw materials, shelving, tables, and fabricated objects of Jay’s own making. Among many other things, Jay creates custom-built devices that clear out silos. His command over the field of welding spreads out into surrounding topics of physics, science, and mechanics. I got into it with Jay, trying to see how deep the silo went. I don’t think I got near the bottom.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Tell me about yourself and where you’re from.
My name is Jason Wasilewski. I’m 33 years old. I live in Mokena, Illinois, and my official job title is Fabricator.
I was born about 12 miles north of here in Palos Park, and have been around here my entire life. Growing up, I was always the kid that wanted to make money. My allowance was a dollar or two for doing household chores and that didn’t pay for anything I wanted. My dad always taught me that if you want something, you gotta work for it. So I mowed lawns and plowed driveways and things like that until high school.
I was the dangerous kid growing up. The one you shouldn’t give the tool kit to. ’Cause everything would be disassembled in the house. Or one time I found dad’s fireworks stash. We didn’t have matches, so we used a magnifying glass to light ’em. We were those kids.
My dad is an aerospace engineer, and my mother used to teach special ed. She was a musician as well. She played accordion and a few other things.
I’d say we were middle class. Maybe lower middle class.
What are some of your previous jobs and how did they shaped you?
In high school, I started working at National Tire and Battery. I guess I was a tire changing technician, if you wanna glorify it. The un-glorified title would be, shop monkey. Whatever anybody needed, you were the guy that did it.
That was my first actual job. Then I started working at the local community college. Moraine Valley CC, it’s right down the way, less than 12 miles from here, and about four miles from my house.
I was taking classes there before I left high school, and then I started working in the welding department, as a welding aid. I ended up making more money and having more fun at the community college. The deal was, you take classes and work as an aid, full time. So it was a legitimate 40 hour a week job. And I got to train underneath my mentor.
By junior year of high school, I was full-time at the community college as well. And I graduated from Moraine Valley as a certified welder before I left high school. So my high school grades weren’t exactly the greatest.
I had a great mentor though. His name is Jim Greer. Still teaching to this day. He was president of the American Welding Society when I first started attending classes. They set the global standards and codes for everything in the welding world.
He’d give you a little bit of background info and then say, go out and do it. And if you messed up he would be there to help you fix it and learn from your mistake.
He’d mentor no more than three at a time. But we’d go run errands for him and stuff. It was kind of an assistant’s job at that point. All of his protégés turned into teachers. We all got jobs teaching at some point because we were constantly around his classes helping him. So we picked up on what he taught, how he taught it, and we would develop our own styles from there.
Tell me about your relationship, and working with Jim.
The best way to say it is, he was like a father figure. He was family to us. Same way your father and mother raised you, he raised us, except through the welding industry. We were taught to be new people while we were working. How we talk to customers, how we disagree, how we handle issues, and stuff like that, you know?
He took us into his family and really cared a lot. We got to know his daughter, his girlfriend. He started off just like us and took every opportunity he could.
I became a teacher’s aid at Triton College, another school in the Chicagoland area. They couldn’t provide another teaching spot at that time, but after six months of being an aid, I became a full-time teacher.
We essentially wrote two programs for them. One which helped kids through the normal associates degree for welding. And another non-accredited program that trained and equipped people from the community that were on welfare and getting food stamps. It was a very successful program.
When that started to take off my home school Maureen hired me as a teacher. I think I was 18 when that happened, and then at 19 I started teaching at a satellite college called South Suburban Community College.
At what point did you start your welding company?
That was actually when I was 16. It was called Certified Welding. It was mainly so I could get paid for the work I was doing assisting. I slowly acquired equipment though, and was able to kinda just grow from there.
At that time I was also working as a mechanic. I had originally gone to school to become a mechanic. I passed every test to become a master tech, and then got in a really bad car accident. That was June 11, 2004.
Then I started doing consulting work for International Harvester, which is also Navistar Trucking, out at their plant in Melrose Park. They had a bad experience with their prototype motors because none of their guys could weld. So they hired me to come in and evaluate, and after I did, they hired me. So we took the certification curriculum from Triton, condensed it, and started training their guys.
What’s the key to being a good instructor?
It really just takes the right person. You have to be friendly and you have to have communication skills. In the welding world you live behind a welding code. You’re in the dark eight hours a day, you’re boiling ’cause you’re working in the hottest conditions, and you end up talking to yourself. So you have to have the ability to turn that off and be friendly and sociable.
That’s the stereotype, and it’s true for 80 to 90 percent of the industry.
Any other early influences?
Working with the Boy Scouts of America. They have a program called the Explorers Space. It’s boys and girls between 9 to 22 years old, or somewhere around there. At the time they wanted to do something outside of the Scouts.
Boy Scouts is there, alive and well, but this was something that involved the community. They had found that a lot of high schoolers felt like they had to go to Harvard or Yale, or they were gonna end up a drug dealer.
They didn’t know that the trades were coming back, and that we’re going to have a huge shortage of welders by 2020, nationwide.
So we created this program and it became a community activity for both boys and girls that aimed at teaching the trades. It was really an amazing thing.
How do you motivate the kids and get them involved?
First, I tell them to pick any object they want and I tell them how it involves welding. From toothpaste to brushes to razors, to hair gel, to everything.
It’s an industry that will never be completely outsourced. It’s a good job, and if you do it right, you start at 18, you get in with a union, and by the time your 45 or 50, you’re gonna retire with a million dollars. You really will.
It’s a great paying job. Kids are interested in money right now.
How has technology changed things?
When I started off, I was fortunate enough to be poor. I didn’t have the money to get large lavish pieces of equipment. When I was learning I saw all these companies who had a very large footprint. They had big buildings, they had cars, they had service trucks, and when the technology bubble started rising and the trade bubble started shrinking they started closing their doors.
And family businesses were the first ones to get hit. I watched all these businesses folding, but I never really got hit too hard because I don’t have a lot of stuff, or a physical building. I’m mobile.
How do politics and the economy affect what you do?
All manual trades will be affected by politics. Every president has put a tariff on something. Before the election even happened, Canada put a tariff on dairy, wheat, and lumber. It does affect a lot of the industry, but my personal business doesn’t see much of a difference.
The businesses I work for see it though, and they take a hit when it’s bad.
From a business level, I always wanna see someone flourish. I wanna see them succeed. And to be part of a company that’s not, it becomes a personal thing. But business-wise, I wanna see more work done in the United States.
I see the government starting to recognize that trades are important again. I see them trying to understand how cutting imports could increase our economy. A lot of it is hit or miss. They need to listen to their constituents and their people a little bit more, but that’s probably not gonna happen.
But from a D.C. level, I see an attempt. These are all difficult questions. There needs to be an equal amount of both liberal and conservative. We need to be able to outsource and we need to have growth at home. It’s the same argument with having a Hyundai or Subaru come here and build a plant. We get workers that put food on the table, they get money from that. They have a job, they have security, they have all the benefits. But at the end of the day, only 15% of that car’s value stays here. The other goes overseas.
How good are you at your job?
I always say I’m fair. If you boast too much about things, it bites you in the butt. It really does.
Do you feel a sense of satisfaction in what you do?
I absolutely love taking raw material stock and creating something useful out of it. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be useful.
I like solving problems. Give me the worst problem you have, and we’ll find a way to solve it. It might take two days, it might take two years, but I know I’m gonna get my hands dirty, I know I might get some scars, but if I’m not bruised, cut, or dirty when I get home, I didn’t work hard enough.
Tell me about the knowledge you’ve gained doing what you do.
I was never someone who could pick up a book, or sit through a class and absorb it all. That’s why I didn’t get my associate degree. I’ve always learned by doing. And I had to see the consequences of my actions, to learn. Yeah, I can read a trade article and grasp what I need to, but there’s still that disconnect.
I’m a curious person, so when something broke, I wanted to figure out why. And nobody taught me that, it was just pure curiosity. That goes for understanding the science, too. I’m always asking, why does this happen?
I sleep about three hours a night. So my brain’s always running.
Where do you go from here in your career?
The five year plan is continuing to work with this place, but also opening a brick and mortar shop. Almost a communal shop where, yes it’s my company, but also a space where tradespeople can do side work as well. Like a barber.
I’d also like to involve the Scouts. They’re not in session right now because it’s summer. Well, that’s a lot of time that the kids could be learning and we could be getting them ready for certification, but we’re not.
How well does the job provide, financially?
The long and short of it is, if you’re truly passionate about this career, you’ll never be paid what you’re putting into it, ever. You’re always going to go a little bit further for personal reasons.
Another thing, is that it’s a whole different world working for yourself, versus working for someone else. Rates are different, you do things differently, the machinery can be different.
What kind of money can a new welder anticipate making?
If you’re going to work on an assembly line, making four welds on one part, day in day out, you’ll make $13 to $15 an hour. If you go into a union, you’ll probably make $25 to $30 an hour. If you pay your dues though and take it seriously, you can make $100 to $150 an hour. You have people that go to diving school and learn how to weld underwater. They’re making $850 every hour they’re under.
What’s a typical day like?
I thrive in organized chaos. Which is a great thing to see in a small business. I’ll explain why.
I’m the guy that maintains everything in the shop. If a machine breaks, I fix it. If we have an air leak, I fix it. If we have an electrical issue, I fix it. Anyway.
I run the whole shop.
First thing, I punch in and take my rings and jewelry off. I have a bite and enjoy the first few quiet sips of coffee to maintain sanity. And then I get a grasp on what I’m going to do for the day.
I have a job board where I keep track of what I’ve done and what I need to do. But I look at the day knowing that by lunch it will be totally different. In a small company, you’re changing eight directions in five minutes, and it goes from famine to feast like that. It’s a great thing though, it really is. A lot of people hate it, or don’t understand it.
You have customers that come in and say, “I need you to do this now!” If it’s a good customer, then yea, we’ll do it, even if it’s a pain in the butt. You’ve gotta work a little harder, but that’s a guaranteed repeat customer.
I also do some consulting on other welding project. I meet with different departments to see what needs to be done in order to make the deadline.
And by the end of the day, it’s Miller time.
What’s the role of the internet and social media?
I refuse to buy a webpage for my business. There are so many free media outlets out there that can be easily used to my advantage. I choose to use those. This place is the opposite. They don’t have social media, but they have a very nice website, they’re just revamping it now for some of the newer products we’re putting on there.
They’re constantly working with the web servers and things like that. Everyone else in this place has a computer except me. So I do a lot of my stuff on smartphone. I’m always looking things up, like any background history on a product or tool, if I’m using a different metal that I don’t know, I can find out the chemical analysis. It’s crucial in that sense.
It also plays another role. I have to listen to music when I’m working. Music is such a tremendous inspiration. It defines the pace and sets the mood.