With a little bit of the right help, Rockford-area workers are landing good jobs and building the skills they need to keep those jobs and advance their careers.
Landing a good job isn’t always easy. When the economy is struggling, it can feel downright frustrating. Sometimes employers struggle to find the right employees, too.
But with a little help from The Workforce Connection, many local people are landing a successful new step in their careers.
Tiara, a Rockford resident, approached The Workforce Connection last year and learned skills like painting, taking measurements and automating products. She landed an interview with Kids Around the World and took a job managing paperwork for the nonprofit. The organization helped her to join a welding training program, and her career has taken off.
Amanda Sink, the board strategic initiatives manager at The Workforce Connection, enjoys sharing similar success stories.
“We wake up every day and make sure that we can get individuals into a well-paying job where they can provide for their family, and we can help employers and businesses retain and even attract new people,” says Sink. “When you have an organization that is dedicated to making it easier for the employer and individual, I think that is really special.”
The Workforce Connection is one of 22 local workforce boards serving the state of Illinois. Part of a federally funded system, these workforce boards exist to help job seekers find employment and help employers find the right talent. Through partnerships with regional groups, educators, government agencies and elected officials, The Workforce Connection serves Winnebago, Stephenson and Boone counties. It maintains offices at 303 N. Main St., in Rockford; 530 S. State St., in Belvidere; and 307 W. Main St., in Freeport.
While the local workforce is built on many industries, The Workforce Connection focuses on six fields where demand is highest: construction, manufacturing, hospitality and leisure, transportation, logistics and distribution, health care and social assistance.
“These targeted industries are selected through workforce data,” says Sink. “We work with the state of Illinois to produce this data, and we analyze it to determine what our targeted industries are based on high growth and in-demand occupations.”
The organization offers many services to help career seekers get hired. There are multiple programs that develop valuable skills, thanks in part to partnerships with local training institutions. These programs help people to build the credentials they need and get matched with job openings once they’re certified. At the same time, talented people who need assistance finding a job can get the help they need with services like computer/internet access, interview techniques, job search and resume writing, and help with job applications. Services are also available for veterans and workers with disabilities.
Those who join The Workforce Connection can also receive career counseling and training in the “soft skills” needed to keep a job. It’s a win-win for workers and the people who hire them.
“We make sure that the people the employers get are trained and have the skills they need, especially those soft skills,” says Sink. “All of those things contribute to giving our community a valuable workforce.”
There’s plenty for employers to enjoy, as well. The Workforce Connection can set up apprenticeship programs, assess workers’ strengths, and assist with talent acquisition through job fairs, hiring events and job postings.
Apprenticeships provide work-based learning opportunities that help to build talent in-house. When a business partners with The Workforce Connection, it establishes a route for someone to receive on-the-job training along with classroom instruction. Certain benchmarks along the way help the apprentice to realize higher wages as they accomplish more education.
“They call it the earn-and-learn model,” says Sink. “These individuals get a little bit of in-classroom training and on-the-job training. Then, they meet that benchmark of performance. They actually get a salary increase and then keep going up those benchmarks, and their salary continues to increase.”
Apprenticeships offer a means for better recruitment and retention of workers, according to Sink.
FHN Memorial Hospital, in Freeport, was struggling to fill certain positions when it turned to The Workforce Connection for help. In creating an apprenticeship for medical assistants, FHN took existing staff members and “upskilled” them into a new, higher-paying and higher-skilled role. The Workforce Connection provided assistance with education and, through grant funding, helped to finance what’s otherwise an expensive and difficult training path. Because of its connections with federal and state government, The Workforce Connection can access certain funds that help individuals and businesses to offset costs.
“We want to make sure that anybody who is eligible can take advantage of our programs,” explains Sink. “That’s the whole purpose: making sure that everyone in our community is able to contribute to the workplace.”
Programs at The Workforce Connection serve a variety of people at almost every age, from 14 on up. Young workers and middle-aged workers alike can find benefit.
“We have a youth program to help those who are in school and out of school to get them the assistance they need,” says Sink. “A lot of times those young individuals are going to go into what we call a work experience program. There are tons of organizations in the area that utilize this because they can get someone who’s young, and they pay a smaller wage. Sometimes we help offset the cost depending on the size of the employer and their specific need.”
In the one year she’s been with The Workforce Connection, Sink has encountered many people whose lives have been transformed. She first came across Tiara, now 34 years old, a little over a year ago when she was referred by the Rockford Rescue Mission. Tiara joined the work experience program and graduated in March 2020. She started working for Kids Around the World a few months later and joined a welding training program. She remained dedicated to her class and arrived early each day. Tiara is now a certified welder and works as an intern at Kids Around the World.
“We’ve had her welding some stands for our food program that we needed adjusted, and she’s really picked up the welding great,” Tim Claussen, senior manager of playgrounds at Kids Around the World, said in a Workforce Connection promotional video. “Tiara is very reliable. We’re happy to have her. Whenever she comes in the door, she always has a smile on her face, and it just spreads joy to the whole workforce. We just appreciate The Workforce Connection and all of the employees they’ve been able to send over our way.”
Sometimes, Sink meets people who arrive with a very specific job in mind. Rorie was eager to start driving trucks when he showed up, Sink says, but such jobs can be hard to find for those who aren’t familiar with the industry. With a little help, Rorie got a job interview and found the perfect fit.
“He talked about how great the program was, and how finding employment was a breeze for him,” says Sink. “That is kind of the benefit we provide to individuals and the employers.”