There’s almost never been a time when the Rockford area wasn’t a hub of manufacturing. Since its very first settlers dammed up the Rock River, in what’s now known as the “Water Power District,” this region has been producing goods that make the world go ‘round.
From farm implements and Swedish-made furniture, to wartime equipment and fasteners, to high-precision aerospace components, Rockford has been a powerhouse in production and innovation. More than a few patents have been earned among its citizens.
Through the good times and the bad, our region has lived and died by manufacturing, and its latest boom is creating many opportunities for transformation within our city.
Here are 5 simple reasons why manufacturing remains the true strength of Rockford.
It touches nearly half of all local jobs.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20 percent of Rockford workers are engaged in manufacturing. Add the additional 18.7 percent involved in trade, transportation and utilities and you’ve got more than 62,000 local workers making product and getting it to market. No other sector in Rockford comes close – not Education and Health Care (24,900 workers), Government (15,900 workers) or Leisure & Hospitality (13,600 workers).
With so many people engaged in manufacturing in the Rockford area, we boast one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing employment in Illinois and the United States. Only Chicago and its Elgin/Kenosha-Lake County submarkets hire more people in manufacturing.
It’s driving one of the most valuable markets in Illinois
Rockford-area manufacturers produced more than $4.2 billion in goods in 2017, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s almost a third of all gross domestic product generated in Rockford that year, and it makes us the top-producing market in Illinois, behind only the greater Chicago area ($74.81 billion) and Peoria ($6 billion).
It’s strong here because our neighbors are strong, too
Rockford-area manufacturers don’t operate in a bubble. Look closely, and you’ll see their fate is closely linked to the success of other major manufacturers, many of which operate right here in Illinois. Companies like John Deere (Quad Cities), Caterpillar (Peoria/Chicago) and Boeing (Chicago) are purchasing parts manufactured right here in Rockford, and many of these same firms are also buying products that Rockford-based companies are making overseas, in places like China, Brazil and Europe.
Our proximity to interstate highways, railroad systems and world-class airports means the Rockford area is closely linked with customers and suppliers all across the state, the country and the world. And, these transportation connections are fueling a growing cluster of activity around aerospace, with more than 90 related firms located within the Rockford area, according to Rockford Area Economic Development Council.
We’re growing our own talent for the future
Unlike in years past, American manufacturers today are competitive because of their advanced knowledge and experience with high-tech equipment – not just the workers on the shop floor but the engineers designing everything from product to process.
Because manufacturing is inextricably tied to the fate of our region, and because there’s an impending “brain drain” of retiring baby boomers who will leave the industry with decades of hard-won experience, Rockford-area leaders are coalescing around a strategy to grow our own talent from within.
Rock Valley College is teaming up with public school systems in the Rockford region, area manufacturers and Northern Illinois University to ensure a smooth pipeline for young people and working adults to earn the credentials they need while advancing their careers.
Rockford Public School students headed to the shop floor are earning college credits while practicing on RVC’s advanced CNC machines, while their colleagues are preparing for the engineering office through a four-year degree NIU now offers right on RVC’s campus. Dozens of students are finding a wide-open door to a fulfilling career post-graduation.
Meanwhile, work continues on transforming the former Barber-Colman manufacturing center, which has been vacant for decades, into a thriving live/work/study center for advanced employment training. Though still in the early design phases, this Colman Village promises to further fuel the demand for skilled manufacturing and engineering talent.
Manufacturing is Exploding
Since the end of the recession, manufacturing has grown exponentially in the Rockford area – to the tune of 24 percent between 2010 and 2018, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. That rate, which outpaced the Chicago area, amounts to roughly 6,400 new jobs created over eight years. It’s like adding another FiatChrysler (5,152 workers at its recent peak) and Woodward plant (1,900 workers) to our local workforce.