Workforce Development – The Key to Flying High in Manufacturing
Ian Wright posted on November 07, 2018 |
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)

One of the best things about manufacturing is its ability to grow a community. A new factory opening in the right place at the right time can be the beginning of a whole new town or village. It’s how we ended up with nicknames like Steel City and Motor City—or the Rust Belt, for that matter—and its absence has been keenly felt across the USA, particularly during election season.

Despite a more positive outlook from manufacturers as a whole, many factories are still struggling to find workers with the right qualifications. This is especially difficult for manufacturers located away from major urban centers, which tend to soak up the majority of available talent in the area. Of course, there are exceptions, and given the benefits of building a community around manufacturing, it’s worth finding out what accounts for them.

Rockford, IL is one such case. Located on the banks of the Rock River, it was notable in the 19th and early 20th centuries for its production of tools, heavy machinery and furniture. Like many Rust Belt cities, it struggled in the second half of the 20th century, but by the late 1990s it had become a hub for aerospace manufacturing. had the opportunity to speak with Nathan Bryant, President and CEO of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, to understand what makes this region unique. 

How did Rockford become a hub for aerospace manufacturing?

During World War I and right before World War II, we were producing a lot for the war effort, and in particular, we were making vacuum switches and other things that were utilized in a lot of different vehicles. Right after World War II, when commercial aviation started becoming a thing, it's those exact same vacuum switches that were utilized on a lot of equipment that goes on the commercial airline industry and all aircraft, in general. We were fortunate to have a good jump into the aerospace market.

(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)

If you fast forward to today, we have 90+ companies that are tied to the aerospace industry in Winnebago County, the county we reside in right next to Wisconsin in Northern Illinois. It's the highest concentration of companies tied to aerospace per capita. Whether it's going to the moon, or it's going to Mars at some point, or it's simply just flying folks around for military—whatever purpose, there are parts on it that are from right here in Rockford. That’s why we use the phrase, “Every system, every aircraft.” And we're very proud of that.

What that means for us is that our community in the Rockford area is a supply chain to the world. We've got some very top level companies that are here, like UTC, which just recently bought Rockwell Collins. We have Woodward, and they do aircraft control systems that are on all the Boeing planes and all their engine control systems, which is quite a phenomenal feat for an area like ours. There’s also GE Aviation, and we're also in the maintenance repair overhaul business. We have AAR, they're tied to our airport, and AAR is the third largest maintenance and repair overhaul company in the world, the largest in the US. That’s just to name a few, and those are the bigger ones we have. We also have a lot of exceptional medium- and small-sized companies that have projects that are pretty high-profile and really rather unique.

Are these start-up businesses or smaller job shops?

Well, they range in size. You know, we have job shops that are supplying some of the larger aerospace companies that we have here. We have a mix of that, but we also have high-precision manufacturing that's occurring that are supplying well outside the confines of our local market. There’s a gear company—Forest City Gear—in the northern part of the county that’s providing all of the gears that go on all of the Mars Rover program.

Then we have other exceptional companies that are in aerospace welding that do very high-precision welding to maintain different components on aircraft. It's very difficult to put together certain types of metals in a way with high precision. We have other companies that do everything in between. Most of them have been start-ups in one way or another and they’re continuing to grow.

Is aerospace your primary industry by far, or are there other noteworthy manufacturing industries in Rockford?

Well, aerospace is a big part of what we do. But at the heart of it is advanced manufacturing. Our companies that are in the aerospace business are not just exclusive to aerospace. They're also doing advanced manufacturing high-precision work for the medical industry, for example.

So, although we really tout the aerospace business, which we're good at, we're doing the exact same thing on medical manufacturing because it requires a very similar skillset, and the precision is no different than what we need to do in aerospace. By the time you get your AF certification, you're nine-tenths of the way there for doing manufacturing on the medical side as well.

(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)

I think if there's one thing that we own as a community—and it’s the number one topic for all employers right now—is really related to workforce. Our community has been in the work force development business for 10+ years. A very specific example of that would be that in order for us to attract AAR to the market, we built them really nice expensive hangars at our airport where it makes all the sense in the world, you can land any aircraft. We also built a training facility right next to the hangars for AAR to guarantee them the labor. We'd pop out a few mechanics right next to where their facility is.

As for our engineering programs, we need lots of mechanical engineers. Originally, you couldn't get a mechanical engineering degree right here in Rockford, so we created a certified mechanical engineering program. You get your mechanical engineering program on one of our junior college campuses here.

How was that accomplished?

We paired together a public/private partnership. Between our aerospace companies and some private investments raised $7.5 million for this program, and the value proposition for it is really rather cool. When you're in the program as a student student, you're guaranteed two things: an interview for any internship between your sophomore and your junior year or there about, and you're guaranteed to interview with one of our local companies once you graduate with your mechanical engineering degree.

That is a whole genesis of this program around a very simple concept. A) We need to grow our own talent. B) We need to demonstrate to our talent that's already here, our kids that are already here that this is a great area to thrive and have an exceptional career. A kid that's from this area, he or she is more likely to stay in the Midwest than they are to fly out some other direction by the time they’ve finished some of their training, just because they have roots here.

And the local colleges are working together on this?

Yeah. The two organizations that are working on this Engineering Our Future program are Northern Illinois University and Rock Valley College, which is our local junior college. That partnership together allows the ability to get mechanical engineers trained right here in Rockford. We are never letting grass grow on our feet when it comes to workforce development.

What are the principal challenges for manufacturers in Rockford?

We're facing the same challenges as almost every Mid-west city. Population is always a concern, but we're combating that a little bit differently. Wherever you look throughout the Mid-west, most folks are losing population to the coast or Denver or Texas. So our challenge is increasing our population, not just our workforce.

(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)

Some of the longest one-way commute time in the country are 30-35 miles East of us, toward Chicago. That group of folks are used to commuting one way almost 50 minutes a day. What has occurred over time for us is that we’re getting a lot of talent that resides in or near Chicago that chooses to live there but they work here because it's much easier for them to make a 50 minute commute in our direction than to spend the same amount of time to drive ten miles to Chicago.

Our population county-wide hovers around 250,000-300,000, but our workforce swells to almost a million people because of those average commute times.

You mentioned some space-based applications happening in Rockford. Do you think the private sector space race between the likes of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX will have a significant impact on the aerospace industry?

Well, we're seeing impacts of it now because we have several companies that are tied to it in one way or another. Just simply because we manufacture the equipment that builds all this stuff. We've got companies that are in that business. We don't see that going away any time soon. It's been a tremendous bump for us in addition to the BOD work that we have and conventional aerospace work. Right now, it's a trend in the industry that doesn't seem to be going away. We'll certainly ride that wave while we can.

How have the current steel and aluminum tariffs impacted the aerospace industry in Rockford?

The immediate impact has been really related to pricing, quite frankly. A lot of the companies we work with have seen an immediate jump in pricing. I think our companies are dealing with the same dynamic that many companies around the country are facing. It just a pricing question that everybody has adapted to as quickly as they can.

(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)

When we're in such a high precision business, many of our companies may not use US based steel, especially when we start getting into specialty alloys. Those specialty alloys come from different areas of the world. It's very simple. In order for us to do things like longer linear actuation that require a high precision over very long lengths, the steel has to come from wherever it comes from. It's a pricing conversation that we're all going to have to adjust to.


Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you think our readers would be interested to learn about manufacturing in Rockford?

(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)
(Image courtesy of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.)

One thing we didn't talk about is that this area still has one of the highest concentrations of fasteners in the nation. That's another base of our manufacturing history that's not going to go away any time soon. Turns out you're going to need nuts and bolts and screws for almost every industry. We don't do that as much for the aerospace industry but when it comes to anything automotive, we're supplying the world with our cold heading and forming processes. We touted at one point in our history that we were The Screw Capitol of the World, and that never really went away.

For more stories on local manufacturing, check out New Hampshire – The Next Medical Manufacturing Hub?A David-and-Goliath Story from The Green Mountain State and Manufacturing with Southern Hospitality.

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