The Rockford region has long been an advanced manufacturing hub. Our region’s roots in the machine tool industry have supported our community’s evolution into a 21st-century powerhouse. In recent years, we have grown to become America’s ninth largest Aerospace hub and are now known as a place where sophisticated design, machining, and supply-chain solutions are developed for a myriad of industries.
Those Rockford area solutions are often developed by engineers. Until now, all degreed engineers had to receive their education from outside the Rockford region. And that’s where the Engineering Our Future project came in – a project that has had aggressive targets and schedules and is already delivering results.
“We reached out to Northern Illinois University and found an eager partner,” said Rock Valley College board member and R1 Planning Council Executive Director Michael Dunn, Jr. Discussions moved quickly, and the project launched in August of 2015 with the announcement of the NIU Engineering program at the RVC campus. A capital campaign launched at the same time to support the refurbishment of the Woodward Technology Center, scholarships, and programming. All told, the campaign has raised $7.5 million to date from a wide variety of community funders across the region.
The facility work moved quickly, allowing the first NIU classes to begin in August of 2016 in a fresh, well-equipped setting. NIU and RVC teams worked closely to integrate their curriculums and eliminate barriers to a smooth student transfer process. Partnerships with local businesses were built,
allowing students to have a robust set of internship and placement opportunities.
Word of the opportunity to locally obtain a high-quality 4-year engineering degree with industry integration for less than $40,000 spread quickly. RVC enrollment in engineering classes more than tripled. Staff and community members worked closely to keep the wave of new students supported and connected with local internship and employment opportunities.
The project continues to drive forward – heightening regional awareness of the program, improving connections with area high schools,
connecting students with opportunities for financial and mentoring support, and building a network of employment and technical partners.
The project holds great economic promise for the region. “Engineers are great economic drivers,” said Bob Guirl, an active community member in the Transform Rockford movement and Engineering Our Future team member. “For every 100 engineers we train and place here, we create 300 to 600 other jobs.”
The Engineering Our Future team meets for 30 minutes at 7:30 AM on Mondays. “We are learning every week,” says Sagar Patel, Engineering Our Future team member and President, Woodward Aircraft Turbine Systems. The team’s commitment is paying off. In a few months, the first of the local NIU program’s engineers will graduate – each with great local employment opportunities.
Reflecting on the spreading collaborations and breadth of career pathways being created in the region, Dunn added, “We absolutely can be a place that attracts people and companies who are looking for a great education and career-specific training. Why not? That would be my question; why not? We’re already halfway there.”
“Workforce development is a potentially game-changing opportunity, and the best part is we can write our textbook,” adds Patel.