'We Have To Come Together': Rockford Community Creates A Job Pipeline To Retain Homegrown Talent

Mar 4, 2020

Illinois’ population dropped for the sixth year in a row. And Illinois students leave the state for school at higher rates than almost anywhere else. Rockford is trying to leverage its engineering and manufacturing industry to get people to stay.

Half of the state’s manufacturing workers are retiring in the next 10 or so years. The Illinois Manufacturer Associations says that’s going to leave a glaring need for production workers and engineers. 

Manufacturing has long been a key cog in Rockford’s economic engine. And its leaders know they have to invest in it if they want the area to flourish in the future.

A few years ago Rena Cotsones helped jumpstart the Northern Illinois University engineering program at Rock Valley College in Rockford.  She’s the associate vice president for outreach, engagement and regional development at NIU. 

The idea was if they could cut down the barrier of having to drive to their main DeKalb campus, they could make engineering more accessible to Rockford students, she said.

“Collaboration is the new imperative. Nobody has enough resources to do these kinds of things on their own,’’ Cotsones said. “We have to come together and link and leverage our resources to be able to solve our local problems."

So they also partner with RVC along with businesses like Woodward, an aerospace manufacturing company. 

The first class of students from the collaborative program just graduated. Ghazi Malkawi is one of the engineering professors. He said  the first class was small, only about 20 students. But he says it’s grown significantly since then. “Out of the 19 students, 18 students basically found full-time opportunities with local companies, most of them basically stayed in the companies where they did their internships.”

A lot of those internships were with companies like Woodward or Collins Aerospace. Malkawi said he didn’t realize just how vital the engineering demand was in northern Illinois until he started teaching here. 

“I can tell you, even from some schools in larger cities, probably students won't have the opportunity that students have here,” Malkawi said.

Michael Wucki is walking out of his Dynamics class at RVC. He’s in his second year of the mechanical engineering program, and he’s already taking some NIU classes, where he’ll be next year. 

He transferred to RVC from a four-year school. He says he’s saving a lot of money, and the program fits him. 

“Some people just do the two-year degree and then go straight into the workforce or continue on somewhere else,’’ he said. “It is aimed a little more towards the hands-on, practical aspect, which I really like.”

Rock Valley is also partnering with Rockford Public Schools to let some high school seniors take engineering classes and build a pipeline from Rockford students to Rockford jobs.

That RVC senior semester is open to students in their high school’s engineering pathway. Rockford Public Schools recently revamped their college & career academy model. Now each academy has a local business sponsor. Collins Aerospace is the partner for their Producation Academy. 

Rock Valley College and Northern Illinois University collaborate on providing an engineering program that involves local companies.
Credit Peter Medlin / Northern Public Radio

But Rockford Public Schools career academy asks students to consider a career far before their senior year. In fact, many students pick their intended pathway around eighth or ninth grade. 

Bridget French is executive director of college & career readiness for RPS. She said they’re not asking students to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

“How do we get kids excited and aware of things that are going on in our region? How do we get them just thinking about STEM? Making sure that girls especially are aware of these because we want to be intentional about diversifying our workforce,” French said.

Cultivating awareness has to start early. Collins recently hosted dozens of middle school girls as part of a program to introduce STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to girls. They also collaborated with the local Discovery Center Museum to create a mobile STEM lab to bring experiments to local elementary schools. 

NIU’s Rena Cotsones sais it’s crucial for the schools to engage with local companies. 

Machine shop at RVC's Woodward Technology Center in Rockford
Credit Peter Medlin / Northern Illinois Public Radio

“We also need those local companies to stay in town. They are no longer, many of them, headquartered in the Rockford area, she said. :So, there is always this threat that a company could decide not to continue their presence in Rockford.”

And to show they’re in it for the long-haul, Cotsones said they need to check in on each other.

She said, “We have the top person at Woodward in Rockford meeting with us every Monday at 7:30. That to me is just incredible.”

Those meetings offer them an ear into the industry many schools don’t have. And it allows them to think proactively. 

Seeing a trend towards robotics, RVC is now offering a new mechatronics engineering degree. And they hope to eventually bring it under the RVC/NIU umbrella. 

With students leaving Illinois, people like Cotsones say collaboration is key no matter the industry. It’s going to be up to local communities to solve the workforce problems of tomorrow. 

Bridget French at RPS and Malkawi at NIU say they also consider how when they’re selling potential students on the Rockford engineering industry, they’re also selling them on Rockford as just a good place to work and live. 

Michael Wucki is thinking about that right now. And he said he doesn’t feel the pull to move to the coasts to be an engineer. He likes the Rockford area, the suburbs and the state parks in the area, and wants to stick around.