Northwest Business Magazine

Pathways to Prosperity: In Manufacturing, Apprenticeships Build Careers

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In our region’s return to well-being, apprenticeships offer one pathway for area workers to improve their situation while developing skills on the job. Meet one Rockford man whose apprenticeship set him on a course toward prosperity.

As an apprentice at Advanced Machine & Engineering, in Rockford, Nick Roeling spent four years balancing on-the-job training with evening classes at Rock Valley College.

As an apprentice at Advanced Machine & Engineering, in Rockford, Nick Roeling spent four years balancing on-the-job training with evening classes at Rock Valley College.

Manufacturing has long had a reputation for being dark, dumb and dirty, but that never dissuaded Nick Roeling from entering the field. As a student in Jefferson High School’s shop class in the mid-2000s, he simply enjoyed crafting metal blocks into useful tools.

Out of school, Roeling worked on an assembly team and joined a dedicated apprenticeship program where he quickly proved himself on the shop floor. And then he got the chance of a lifetime: an invitation to move into the sales office.

“Someone must have seen something and liked my work ethic, because they asked me what I would think of coming up and doing some sales,” he says. “I thought, “it’s different from what I’ve been doing,’ but I was up for a challenge.”

Now serving as the fluid power product manager at Advanced Machine & Engineering (AME), Roeling is part of a family-owned manufacturer in Rockford that places a premium on learning and self-improvement. Today, he’s engaging his knowledge of the manufacturing process to help clients find solutions to their needs.

As is the case for many leaders in Rockford’s manufacturing sector, it was Roeling’s apprenticeship that equipped him with the skills and the confidence to prosper. Around the greater Rockford area, nearly 40 manufacturers are offering apprenticeships to some 100 young workers, according to the Rock River Valley Tooling & Machining Association, which credentials local apprentices. The program’s combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction uniquely equips these young workers to grow with their employer.

In Roeling’s case, that apprenticeship has propelled him into the American Dream – working for a fast-growing company in a city where opportunities continue to bloom.

“Knowledge is everything,” says Roeling. “I thought, better me and better my family.”

Straight out of school in 2007, Roeling took a position with a local manufacturer, but the experience left him longing for more hands-on work, so he got himself onto a pipefitting team in the company’s assembling unit. It was good, exciting work, but the economy was crashing down. In time, Roeling, like many of his colleagues, received his pink slip. It came just after the birth of his first child.

“My wife got to work and I watched our son for the first year,” Roeling explains. “Once he was more independent, I started looking for work and that’s when I found Advanced Machine.”

AME’s four-year, government-approved apprenticeship walks new employees through every major area of machining, as they first learn to work old-school manual machines before graduating up to the more-advanced CNCs. By day, Roeling worked in the shop and learned from veteran employees. By night, he was in class at Rock Valley College, where he learned about metallurgy, drawing and reading blueprints, and programming machines. After four hard years, he graduated with a Journeyman certificate.

The newly certified machinist headed to AME’s grinding shop, where he would hone equipment to specification. Barely a year in, Roeling was invited to move into the sales office. His new position led him to additional classes on hydraulics and pneumatics, so he could better understand the products he sold.

Explaining how a product works is the easy part – it’s pretty natural after working in the shop, he says. He’s found that many of those same skills that are valuable on the shop floor are essential in the sales office, especially those “soft skills” such as good work ethic, empathy and a positive attitude.

For now, Roeling plans to continue building his sales skills, but he remains open to whatever career advancements lie ahead.

“Timing is everything, and it’s crazy how things work out,” he says.

Become an Apprentice

Journeyman certificates are available in a number of fields, including precision machining, gear cutting machining, and tool and die making. To earn a certificate, a worker must complete the following requirements:

8,000 to 10,000 hours of on-the-job training
Related technical training
640 classroom hours
10 courses over four years

Source: Rock River Valley Tooling & Machining Association

Local Manufacturing Firms Offering Apprenticeships

Nearly 100 individuals are serving apprenticeships at local manufacturing firms, where they’re learning both on the job and in the classroom, all while being paid. Most apprentices earn increasingly higher wages as they complete their studies. All area apprenticeships completed to the standards of the Rock River Valley Tooling & Machining Association are certified by the federal Department of Labor, which issues national journeyman credentials to graduates. In the greater Rockford area, programs are available in tool and die making, CNC precision machining, gear cutting machining and mold making. If you’re interested in becoming an apprentice, contact Rock River Valley Tooling & Machining Association about taking an aptitude test or reach out to area manufacturers to see if a position is available. Here are a few firms that typically hire apprentices:

A & B Machine Shop, Rockford
Advanced Machine & Engineering Co., Rockford
All World Machinery Supply, Roscoe, Ill.
Anpec Industries, Inc., Pecatonica, Ill.
B & B Tool Company, Inc., Rockford
Beloit Precision Die Co., Inc., Beloit
Co-Lin Metals Fabricating, Inc., Rockford
D Machine, Inc., Loves Park, Ill.
Dial Machine, Inc., Rockford
Do-It Tool & Die, Inc., Beloit
Draeving Machine & Tool, Inc., Beloit
Erickson Tool & Machine Co., Rockford
EWT/3DCNC, Inc., Rockford
F.N. Smith Corporation, Oregon, Ill.
Freeway Rockford, Inc., Rockford
Forest City Gear, Roscoe, Ill.
Header Die & Tool, Inc., Rockford
Industrial Molds, Rockford
JC Milling Company, Inc., Machesney Park, Ill.
J.L. Clark, Rockford
LTL Co., Rockford
McCurdy Tool & Machine Inc., Caledonia, Ill.
Martin Precision, Inc., Rockford
Micro Punch & Die Company, Rockford
Modern Advanced Manufacturing, Rockford
North American Tool, South Beloit, Ill.
Pro Arc, Inc., Loves Park, Ill.
Quantum Design Inc., Loves Park, Ill.
RG Manufacturing and Machining, Machesney Park, Ill.
Rockford Process Control, Rockford
Rockford Quality Grinding, Rockford
Rockford Toolcraft, Inc., Rockford
S&B Jig Grinding, Inc., Loves Park, Ill.
Schafer Gear Works, Roscoe, Ill.
Superior Joining Technologies, Inc., Machesney Park, Ill.
Swebco Manufacturing, Inc., Machesney Park, Ill.
TECm, Rockford
Ultra Stamping & Assembly, Inc., Rockford
United Skilled, Inc., Rockford
United Tool & Engineering Co., South Beloit, Ill.
Versatool & Die Machining & Eng., Inc., Beloit
Youngberg Industries, Inc., Belvidere
Zigler’s Machine & Metal Works, LLC, Dixon, Ill.

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