This is an advantageous time for young people and others who want to build a solid career in our region. Longtime workers are retiring at a fast rate and there aren’t enough replacements with the right mix of machining and other skills. This was true before the pandemic and is true today, as companies ramp up to meet brisk demand.
“There’s a ‘now hiring’ sign on every other corner in Rockford right now,” says Jessica Hayes, work-based learning coordinator for Rockford Public Schools. “Our employers, anywhere from education to manufacturing to public safety, are all trying to find people to come and work.”
Both in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, major effort is being made to offer the training opportunities people need to fill important jobs. Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College (RVC) have spent much of the past decade aligning curriculum to engage young people and working adults who want to enter manufacturing, for example.
“You can’t always bring them in from outside the community, so why can’t we grow our own right here?” says Hayes, who works with area manufacturers and other employers to improve the talent pipeline with job shadowing, internships and in-school curriculum.
Dual credit opportunities are earning students working credentials while they’re still in high school, and RVC is helping working adults to earn apprenticeships and certificates in high-demand fields like advanced machining, truck driving or cold head manufacturing. RVC’s new Advanced Technology Center is poised to start training the next generation of workers for high-demand fields this fall. It will also help employers to upskill their existing talent.
“I had a chance to tour the facility a couple of times, and it’s a great plan,” says Einar Forsman, CEO of Greater Rockford Growth Partnership. “It’ll probably outgrow itself in a very short time.”
While the pandemic has caused many headaches for local companies, finding the right mix of skilled employees was their most pressing concern even before it began.
“In our region, at least, we had several thousand jobs that were going unfilled before COVID even came to our community,” says Forsman. “It’s been a struggle to get the skilled labor, skilled workforce and people with job readiness. Sometimes, issues like background checks can cause a problem, but leading into 2019, I’d guess we had probably 3,000 jobs going unfilled. I talked to a company in town that runs a pretty large CNC operation, and what they’re seeing is that their machine operators are earning more than their engineers, in many cases, because of the number of hours and demand they’re putting upon these people.”
According to a survey by the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, about a quarter of local manufacturers plan to expand. Aerospace and manufacturing companies continue to lead the way in Rockford’s ongoing recovery.
Likewise, in southern Wisconsin, companies are busy. A tight and competitive labor market is leading to creative solutions for recruiting and retaining workers.
To ensure future employment stability in the Beloit-Janesville region, Blackhawk Technical College is collaborating with local manufacturers, educators, economic development experts and other Rock County leaders to form the Stateline Manufacturing Alliance, a group of nearly 40 local producers and educators.
“We’re focusing on initiatives and activities that will expand the manufacturing pipeline efforts in this region,” says Colleen Koerth, Manager-Workforce Development at Blackhawk Technical College.
Spray Tek, a leader in specialty ingredient processing for food, nutritional, pharmaceutical, beauty care and household products, is building a 75,000-square-foot facility with plans to hire 50 people. The Ho-Chunk Nation is preparing to break ground on a destination resort and casino near Interstate 90, and an Amazon facility in Gateway Business Park is busy shipping ever more packages. In all, the region saw more than $1.6 billion in capital investments last year, according to the Rock County Development Alliance.
“The City of Beloit and Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation are expecting to have another year of growth,” says Jen Hall, President/CEO of Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation and development director for the City of Beloit. “We truly want to see our residents obtaining family-supporting positions. We will use all of our available resources to help train and develop our workforce.” ❚