Uncover some of the ways the Rockford region’s manufacturing powerhouses are keeping up with rising demand, building a highly skilled workforce, feeding the jobs pipeline and investing in the community – all while serving clients the world over.
When one-fifth of your region’s economy depends upon manufacturing, and another fifth involves the services that get products to market, your region lives and dies by manufacturing.
By all indications, our region isn’t just living – it’s thriving – with the growth of today’s advanced manufacturing. Completely modern, high-tech facilities are churning out products that make their way across the country, around the world and even in outer space. And they’re doing it with a highly skilled, highly valuable workforce on the shop floor, inside the engineering studio and in the office.
True to its heritage, Rockford’s manufacturing scene is still filled with locally owned companies, some of which have been led by the same families for generations. Grateful for the prosperity they’ve enjoyed, these families have found numerous ways to support their community through charitable work and advisory roles.
Even some of our region’s biggest players, firms like Woodward and UTC Aerospace (now Collins Aerospace), can claim a long and storied existence here in our region, and their many employees continue to have a deep impact on their community.
The Rockford area’s manufacturers continue to be leaders in their fields. They’re innovators, embracing new technologies and ways of doing business, developing new products to satisfy growing market demand, and enhancing their value to clients that work around the world.
Products manufactured in Rockford are all around you. The school bus your kids rode this morning? Systems made in Rockford. The tractor plowing through the fields or the semi truck rumbling down the highway? Parts made in Rockford. The airplanes taking off at Chicago Rockford International Airport? Parts made here, and serviced inside the airport’s massive maintenance, repair and overhaul facility. And that’s just the start.
In thousands of other, smaller ways, you can see Rockford-made products at work. We’re still earning our nickname as the “Screw City” with all the custom fasteners we’re producing here. And we’re producing numerous tools that power the success of other manufacturers the world over.
Not to be forgotten is the wealth of engineering, assembly and aftermarket services provided to clients around the globe, all from a home base right here in Rockford.
In a twist of fate, our homegrown manufacturers aren’t solely operating in northern Illinois. They’ve established plants across the U.S., and they’ve set up shop around the globe, where they’re working in close proximity to major global manufacturers with names like Caterpillar and Deere. Even as they employ foreign workers and boost the prosperity of other nations, those overseas plants are making possible the sorts of high-skilled manufacturing, engineering and assembly jobs that remain fixed in the Rockford area.
Walk into any local factory, and you’re likely to spy a clean, white environment that some say is so clean “you can eat right off the floor.” It’s a far cry from the “dark, dumb, dirty” manufacturing of yesteryear – although, to be fair, companies of this kind are a necessity, and they’re still finding success here in Rockford.
Long-gone are many of the low-skilled, low-wage jobs easily found in the factory of yesteryear. Those functions have been largely replaced by technologies that require highly skilled employees capable of balancing highly sophisticated machining with a knack for good old mechanics, mathematics and problem solving.
Behind these high-skilled shop floor workers is a team of highly trained engineers, responsible not just for designing new products but also for testing them, troubleshooting problems and establishing efficient methods of manufacture. It’s problem solving on a whole different level.
And don’t forget about the numerous support jobs that make everything possible – the accountants, the salespeople, the purchasing managers, the marketers, the executives, and even the logistics and warehousing people who get products to market.
At all levels, these skilled jobs support local families – like yours – with good wages and a skill set that can go many places.
Building the high-skilled workers needed in today’s manufacturing environment has been a major priority for both our employers and our local institutions of higher education. As the economy improves for area manufacturers and the pace of technological change speeds up, these firms need qualified workers like never before. Couple those market forces with the impending “brain drain” of baby boomers who are preparing to retire and take with them decades of knowledge, and demand has never been greater for people who have the skills to succeed.
That’s why schools like Rock Valley College (RVC) and Highland Community College are ratcheting up the programs needed to equip the workers of today – and tomorrow. RVC continues to invest in its advanced manufacturing facilities while also introducing youngsters to skills like coding that will have a greater impact in the future.
At the same time, RVC has teamed up with Northern Illinois University to provide talented individuals with four-year degrees in mechanical engineering, all without having to leave the Rockford campus – and without spending an arm and a leg on their education. Through their schooling, these ambitious young engineers are interning at local manufacturers and earning much-deserved attention from local firms eager to hire.
The Rockford Public Schools are doing their part, as well, as they realign their curriculum so high schoolers are introduced to the principles of engineering and manufacturing as early as possible. Through these new programs, highly skilled teachers are introducing youngsters to the skills of the shop while connecting the other pieces of their education – science and math, especially – that will equip them for success wherever they go after graduation.
Equipped with the right education, manufacturing workers have before them a world of possibilities. As we’ve shown you in our Pathways to Prosperity series this past year, a degree and a job on the shop floor is only the beginning. Experience in manufacturing has led many ambitious people along the path to a rewarding career in the shop, on the sales team, or even in the C-suite.
Our region’s manufacturers aren’t just good employers but faithful community servants, as well. All across the Rockford region, you’ll see our manufacturers engaged in their community in a myriad of ways. Some firms give back to the United Way or another charity, while some manufacturing leaders serve on local nonprofit boards such as that of Transform Rockford – the organization leading a strategic self-improvement of our region. Still others are involved in the national scene, working with industry interest groups or wider charitable causes.
Bergstrom Inc., a leader in climate control systems for commercial vehicles, hosts engineering interns and sponsors a televised quiz bowl for local high schoolers. It encourages employees to continually improve their skills through “mastery” designations, and it highly encourages volunteerism.
Rockford Toolcraft, a local tool and die specialist and metal stamping firm, partners with the RVC/NIU engineering program and hosts apprentice tool-and-die makers. The company and employees join together to support the United Way. Company president Tom Busse also supported the launch of the Rockford Rescue Mission’s new Works! Center, which provides education and job training for people in the Mission’s life recovery programs. Works! Center graduates have found jobs at Rockford Toolcraft.
Inside the following pages, you’ll meet many other firms contributing to their community by providing high-quality, well-paying jobs and supporting a myriad of notable causes.
There’s no denying the power of manufacturing on the Rockford region, and its ability to drive our economy. In the following pages, discover just a few of our region’s manufacturers that are leading the way in their field and providing a world-class example of good corporate citizenship.