Transform Rockford: A New Mindset in Economic Development

It’s long been a paradigm of economic development that growing businesses want certain economic concessions. But what if there were other incentives that could draw in new employers and improve our workforce?

It’s long been a paradigm in economic development that growing and relocating businesses demand economic incentives, affordable land, and, perhaps, ready-to-move-in facilities.
But that’s not necessarily the reality in this recovery economy. As the Rockford region maps a new path toward prosperity, local leaders are embracing a more integrated approach to economic development. The most important concession, they believe, is a region’s workforce, and that’s why they’re aligning educational assets to supply the area’s most in-demand work skills.
“We’ve got to attract, retain and train people to meet the workforce needs of a business; that is how we will win,” says Mike Schablaske, executive director of Transform Rockford, a nonprofit organization developing a strategic plan for the region’s renewal.
According to recent jobs reports from the federal Department of Labor, local unemployment sits around 5 percent, with about 152,300 total jobs – an improvement from the 10.5 percent unemployment rate and 148,200 total jobs around late 2013. While those numbers point to progress, Schablaske still hears that nearly 5,000 regional jobs are going unfilled because the appropriate skill sets can’t be found.
Couldn’t unemployed people simply fill those empty positions? Not quite. Many of the region’s most in-demand jobs – engineering, nursing, high-tech manufacturing among them – require at least some degree of training.
Local employers often supplement their needs by recruiting workers from outside the region, but Schablaske and business leaders believe Rockford has a tough time competing with communities where weather, geography, crime rates and state government are more favorable.
Over the past few years, the conversation has shifted away from our region’s disadvantages and onto our region’s competitive strengths. The new question is: Why can’t we grow our own right here at home?
Sagar Patel, president of Woodward’s aircraft turbine systems division, is doing exactly that. In order to field the skilled workers he’ll need at Woodward’s new production center in Loves Park, Ill., he’s been an outspoken proponent for the new four-year engineering degree available at Rock Valley College (RVC). Graduates have an easy pathway into internships and job opportunities at Woodward and other local firms.
Rockford Public Schools has aligned its curriculum around five “academies” angled toward distinct career paths, like health care, public service, manufacturing and liberal arts/college prep. Students are exposed to numerous career paths, and they often tour local businesses to see the work up close.
In this new model, the community college also plays a critical role in advancing the talent pipeline. This past December, RVC announced it’s teaming up with Freeport’s Highland Community College to develop a pathways model that promises to put college credits and industrial credentials in the hands of high school graduates from the colleges’ feeder districts.
Supported by a $675,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois, the Pathways program promises to introduce students to career paths and educational interests that align with the region’s most demanded skill sets.
It’s likely these paths could intersect with RVC programs like the four-year engineering degree, OSF’s nursing school at RVC, the aviation maintenance center at the airport, and a cold-form fastener training center.
“This can be a competitive advantage to winning business,” says Schablaske. “You need folks to do this? We’ve got a pathway. Kids will be aware that they’re on a path, and they can see how that pathway leads from school into college and employment. And it’s all done locally.”
It also helps that community college education often comes with a significantly lower price tag than a four-year degree.
“It’s getting brutally expensive nationally, and it’s leading to a lot of people who end up with degrees and credentials that don’t necessarily match up nicely with careers,” says Schablaske.
Building on its promise of education, RVC has been a lead partner in the effort to transform the abandoned Barber-Colman factory into a next-generation education center that includes room for business incubation, a makerspace and entrepreneurship resources. Early plans have also called for residential lofts, retail space and hospitality amenities.
“I hope that all involved in this are able to create an environment where there’s a hub of education and workforce development, where employers can also use the facilities for training,” says Schablaske. “It’s not just for traditional and nontraditional students.”
There’s already some indication that the region’s workforce initiatives are achieving their goals. RVC President Doug Jensen says the average age of the community college’s students is 26 – an indication that many area workers are already building their way toward a better career.
For more information on the initiative to make Rockford a Top 25 community by 2025, visit