Exactly what role does engineering play in this region, and what makes it an important player in our prosperity? We met up with eight leaders in the region’s manufacturing scene, to get a sense of how engineers contribute to their organizations and the greater economy.
It’s no secret that manufacturing is a major component of our regional economy. After all, it comprises about 20 percent of all local jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
What’s easy to forget, though, is the importance of the people who work behind the scenes in manufacturing. It’s the engineers who are designing products, envisioning future applications and maximizing efficiencies. They imbue valuable intellectual property and drive innovation, both for their firm and their broader industries.
In our region, the need for highly paid, highly skilled engineers is rapidly expanding. To meet that demand, public and private institutions are banding together like never before in an effort to build our workforce from within, thus creating new opportunities for economic prosperity.
This May, we sat down with leaders from several area manufacturers and our leading educational institutions to get a better look at the role of engineering in our regional workforce and the ways this field contributes to our economic prosperity.
What does engineering provide your organization?
Szalanski: UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) specializes in highly engineered products. We have 1,200 engineers in Rockford. Our research and development, our testing, and our production are in the Rockford area. Engineering plays a huge role in what we’re trying to accomplish, as we look into new markets.
Cooper: At Rock Valley College (RVC), part of our vision statement is to develop clear career pathways that result in rewarding careers. Our partnership with Northern Illinois University provides a nice, clear pathway that leads to high-paying jobs that, I think, will impact our community and our industry partners.
Woerner: At Ipsen, we have roughly 30 engineers – a combination of mechanical, electrical and software engineers. They support the entire product cycle, from defining what the customer wants to guiding the assembly process once the equipment is shipped to the customer. We’re a smaller company, so a lot of our engineers start in very technical roles and have opportunities to advance in the company. For example, I started with a degree in engineering, and our CEO worked as an engineer at Ipsen earlier in his career.
Jensen: The college’s goal is to reach out to the manufacturing and engineering community, to start dealing with the talent needs that are emerging here. There’s been discussion that we need about 200 mechanical engineers in this region. That number doesn’t scare me. What really scares me is the estimated seven technical workers we’ll need to support each of those engineers. That’s 1,400 technically skilled people. We at RVC are looking at how the college can support the regional effort to hire engineers, how we make sure our students are exposed to these high-priority career paths, and how the college can help individuals complete their engineering education in our community.
Kopala: At Ingenium Aerospace, we design, manufacture, assemble, test and support the full product life cycle for aerospace and defense motion control products. So, we cover a wide range of engineering disciplines, including mechanical, electro-mechanical, electromagnetic, electrical control systems, software test equipment, manufacturing and production.
Schedler: At Hennig, with the support of our business development team, we assess our customers’ needs and requirements; conceptualize an idea; design and detail a solution; and define processes to manufacture the product, so it fits their needs and requirements. Our engineers validate the finished product through testing, oversee the installation, and get involved if there are required improvements in the field.
Von Driska: Bergstorm makes climate systems for vehicles: heavy-duty trucks, construction equipment, agricultural equipment, school buses, mining equipment, and a little bit of niche automotive. We design, develop and test our products. We’re headquartered here in Rockford and have a fairly large engineering team here. We do engineering in the U.K. and China, and a little bit at our offshore design center in India. Part of the reason for that is because we continue to have trouble getting skilled engineers to move to Rockford and stay here.
McLevige: Woodward makes very highly engineered products. Locally we make products for turbine aircraft engines. There’s a wide range of engineers we need to be successful. It ranges from more hands-on, working with products on the manufacturing floor, to very highly analytical, physics-based modeling to ensure our products work right the first time. A number of our leaders have engineering backgrounds, including Sagar Patel, our president, and Tom Gendron, our CEO.
What competitive advantages do skilled engineers provide?
Szalanski: It is our competitive advantage at UTAS. Here in Rockford, we focus on electric systems, so we’re developing the next generation of generators and electric aircraft. We’re not able to do that without our highly technical and skilled engineering workforce. They’re what set us apart, keep the business here in Rockford, and keep us growing.
Woerner: The experience we have with some of our more veteran employees, such as those with 20 or 30 years on the job, helps to bring up the next generation of engineers. At Ipsen, we have many customers leading the way for their industries, whether it’s in aerospace, space exploration, automotive or other areas. They’re always asking for equipment that’s larger, more advanced and engineered quickly and more efficiently.
Kopala: We design, assemble and test vehicle-specific products. This drives our future growth. We have highly skilled, deeply experienced people with aerospace and defense knowledge. Our competitive advantage is that we act as an integral part of, or an extension of, the customer’s engineering team. We try to pass along our industry experience to customers.
Schedler: Our products are, for the most part, custom designs that are tailored to fulfill a specific task in a specific environment. No designs are identical; they require, at the very least, engineering changes to a similar design previously built. In order to stay competitive, we have to align ourselves with our customers’ requirements, to make them successful. Custom-designed products, combined with a high level of quality, is what gives us the competitive advantage in our industry.
Von Driska: Most of our customers don’t have heating and cooling engineering departments, so they rely on suppliers like us to design and develop the products.
McLevige: At Woodward, we believe our engaged and well-trained membership, even beyond engineering, is a key to our advantage. We’re trying to establish competitive advantage by pushing the edges of the physics-based design. We want to make sure our engineers are not just focused on the application that’s in front of them today. When you look at what a lot of people call ‘Industrial Revolution 4.0,’ and the advantages you can gain through semi-automation, full automation, things like that – it’s critical that our engineers come to Woodward with those skills.
We see Rockford as a growing center of excellence for engineers. What are the advantages to the Rockford area in having a concentrated engineering workforce?
Szalanski: We try to source locally whenever we can. It’s a lot easier for a team to drive to a supplier where they can touch the part, figure out the part, and make changes, rather than deal with someone who’s a 12-hour flight away. By having a strong engineering base in the region, our local suppliers are able to develop the parts we need to grow.
Woerner: We have a lot of great universities here. There’s the NIU/Rock Valley partnership, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, MSOE – all of those schools produce strong candidates for the Rockford area. I think there’s a sense of pride when you’re being brought up in this area and find a career here. There are also a lot of connections and ties to students or family members who may be interested in joining the field.
Schedler: A larger pool of engineering resources in the region may attract more companies to locate here. The manufacturing infrastructure supports aerospace, automation and the machine tool industry, and combined with engineering resources, it can reduce response times and lead times. We do manufacture a majority of parts in-house, but if we have to outsource, we make a conscious effort to keep it local, for these reasons.
Von Driska: I like that idea that the more engineers we have here, the more chance we have of engineering companies moving to the area. To that end, I also think engineers are more likely to move to the area. They’ll think if this job doesn’t work out, there are other opportunities in the area.
McLevige: Company executives have to look at the bottom line of each facility. If you have a strong community of engineers, where talent is readily available, the choice gets a lot easier. The executive may think, ‘I’m going to have a hard time attracting the right talent. I may have to do a lot of training. I may not even be able to, after a long period of time, find exactly what I need.’ If that’s the case, they’ll be less likely operate here.
What are some of the advantages and challenges you face when recruiting engineers to this region?
McLevige: One of the biggest challenges we have is finding somebody with the right skill set – especially somebody with experience. When we find the right talent, can we get them to come to Rockford? That’s something we need to work on. We believe Woodward’s brand is pretty strong if you’re from the area. But we have to provide competitive rewards, beyond base salary, that can compete nationally – and we really believe we’re competing nationally for engineers.
What regions, in particular, are stiff competition?
McLevige: When somebody’s worked for 10 years in aerospace they’ll look to Woodward as a potential job offer, but they’ll also look to firms like UTC, Honeywell, GE. And because commercial aerospace and military budgets continue to increase, there’s been strong demand across the industry. You can come to Cincinnati, Connecticut, Phoenix, California; you have lots of opportunities.
Szalanski: It’s the same with UTAS. We’re trying to recruit aerospace engineers from other UTAS sites in locations such as Connecticut or Phoenix. It’s a growing industry, and we’re competing across the country for talent.
Von Driska: To a certain extent, we compete with automotive companies. We have a design center in the Detroit area, and part of the reason is that we found a really good engineer who didn’t want to move to Rockford. Detroit has tons of engineers from the automotive world. Being close to Chicago is an advantage and disadvantage. It’s an advantage in that it’s a much better cost of living, but a disadvantage in that engineers we recruit from the suburbs just commute.
Schedler: The advantages in recruiting talent include the acquisition of fresh knowledge and new skills that we can utilize. The challenge involves engineers straight out of school expecting the national average starting salary, which is on the high side for a medium-sized company like ours. For an entry-level or novice engineer there is an average of a one- to two-year learning curve until he or she becomes profitable; therefore, retaining talent and keeping the knowledge and experience of long-time employees has to be a priority. We try to hire local talent when we have open positions available. These individuals may have grown up here, have family here or have been living here for a while and are more likely to stay. We also foster a work environment where we attempt to keep people challenged and develop their strengths – let them perform in what they are best at. That way, the company benefits from quality output and the employees love what they do. As Noah Goellner, our vice president of business operations, said recently: ‘The grass is not always greener on the other side. It’s greener where you water it.’
Kopala: Trying to recruit talent from outside the region is tough because of the lingering negative perception of the area, and it’s even more difficult when you’re a small business. Everyone knows Woodward and UTC. It gets more difficult when they’re saying ‘Ingenium who?’ The other challenge is finding someone who’s a good fit. Large businesses may have silos, if you will. Because we’re a small company, our people wear a lot of hats. People who come from a large organization aren’t always a good fit. If they have history through multiple departments, they tend to work fine. But if they’re siloed, they function less effectively when performing across disciplines.
Woerner: Ipsen is smaller, and so we do compete with the larger firms. Some may have name recognition that creates a sense of pride for an employee. Or, they can bring in great talent and mold it through internships. We look for other ways to identify and attract high-quality talent. We can offer entry-level engineers a little more hands-on experience. It may take two or three years before someone is fully capable of handling our systems, but they’re also getting to work with a lot of departments and understand the entire process. For example, they could be involved in a little bit of purchasing and supply chain – areas where they may not have exposure in larger companies.
Szalanski: I’ve only been in Rockford for four years, and I came here from a UTC facility in Michigan. I think the key is to get recruits to Rockford to interview. If you get them here, you can show them what the community is like. We find many candidates won’t even come to look. Maybe it’s, ‘My spouse says I’m not going to Rockford,’ or, ‘I read this about Rockford.’ But I felt the same way, until we came to visit. The second step, then, is once they are here, we need to assimilate them into the community as fast as possible. Being a large company, UTC sponsors a lot of events, so there are lots of ways to get involved in the community and company-sponsored groups. One thing that helped me when I got to Rockford was the Leadership Rockford program. It’s through the Chamber of Commerce. It gave me opportunities, and it gave me a list of things to do, places to visit and people to talk to. It made me feel like I was part of the community right away.
There’s a growing conversation about Rockford building its own pipeline of engineers. Along those lines, there’s also talk of the 7:2:1 philosophy where, for every job that requires an advanced degree, a community needs two jobs requiring a four-year degree, and those jobs are supported by seven jobs requiring some form of technical certification. Where does our region stand?
Jensen: Prior to coming to Rockford, I was involved in recruiting firms like Airbus, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota engine plant expansion to Alabama. The question that came up frequently is: ‘Where is the skilled talent going to come from? We know we can make the investment of millions of capital dollars to build an expansion infrastructure, but we need a high level of confidence that the talent is here.’ I believe if we can link talent with opportunity here in the greater Rockford region, we can make ‘skilled talent’ our economic differentiator. We’ll attract top-tier suppliers that will attract top engineers, and that will lure other engineers.
The easiest way to understand 7:2:1 is by watching the online video called “Success in the New Economy.” It’s by Kevin Fleming. He believes approximately 70 percent of jobs in the future are going to require some kind of post-high school credential but not a four-year degree. At the same time, we have to be intentional to build educational opportunity that allows our residents a clear way to advance their educational goal to a four-year degree. And then there has to be the mechanism that allows those people to complete advanced degrees, all within our community. From Rock Valley College’s perspective, our customers are the people sitting around this table. We need to be your talent supply chain, and we need to have a closer conversation about how that supply is changing and emerging.
McLevige: I think you’re right on, with the seven. It’s really important we have people above a high school education and some technical capability. But, it’s also important that we provide ongoing education. Machining technology doesn’t stand still, and the producers are constantly coming up with new tools.
Jensen: I meet with Sagar [Patel] every Monday, and I know eventually the skilled level of technicians you will need at Woodward will be huge.
McLevige: It’s a new level of technology. It will take a different level of education and experience to make sure that we have the right people who can achieve maximum efficiency of these machines. It’s so much more advanced these days.
Jensen: The people who can fix things and keep them running need mechanical skills, electrical skills and an understanding of automation, maintenance and computer controls. It’s a diverse skill set that will continue to be important.
Woerner: With engineers, we look for a combination of education and experience to make a well-rounded employee. When we conduct interviews, we say, ‘Let’s hear who you really are, what you’ve done, and what kind of hobbies you have.’ To have an engineer who thinks with gears, and not just industrial furnaces, is valuable. Someone with a blue-collar background and a strong work ethic is great, too. So, the 7:2:1, in my eyes, is pretty relevant, but I would add that someone with a four-year degree, or work experience in addition to an advanced degree specific to our industry, really brings a benefit to Ipsen.
Along the lines of “growing our own,” there’s a great partnership happening between RVC and NIU, where students can earn a four-year engineering degree right in Rockford.
Cooper: In the fall of 2016, we initially began offering NIU courses at the Rock Valley campus. We know there’s a need in the community to replace engineers who will be retiring in the next 5-10 years, and we expect about a 4 percent increase in demand for mechanical engineers. We began courses with 16 students in the junior and senior year, and we just ended our semester with 45 students in their junior and senior years.
This program allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree for under $40,000. They walk out with a degree and a nice wage without much student debt. What makes this program unique is that you earn money in internships while you learn. We have the Illinois Cooperative Work Study program that provides grant funding to pay for half of the wages of interns. Bergstrom and Ingenium Aerospace are two of our industry partners. I think it’s exciting that students could continue an internship year-round.
About what percentage of your students are in internships?
Cooper: We have 40 students in 25 area businesses. These are sophomores, juniors and seniors, all completing internships through the RVC/NIU pipeline.
Kopala: The RVC program is extremely creative. The students RVC is turning out are top-notch. They have a drive and a desire to succeed. Before I started working in Rockford, I spoke at junior and senior high schools about space vehicles and the commercialization of space – and these students were wide-eyed and excited about the industry. You can get the most bang for your buck by setting a foundation at a young age.
Jensen: Rock Valley offers free classes on Saturday mornings called Hour of Coding. One of our faculty members teaches individuals how to code a little robot. The class can accommodate 6- to 60-year-olds. The reason RVC is doing this is because the data says that 64 percent of jobs in the future will require some form of coding. Coding, in my mind, is going to be as fundamental as Six Sigma or lean manufacturing. Everyone is going to have to understand coding. Some people think manufacturing is dangerous, dark, dirty and dull. That’s the perception, but the modern-day manufacturing environment is not like that. There’s more digital technology in the manufacturing sector than there is in the IT sector. So, how do we start introducing the next generations to that idea? A few years ago, a local man, Samuel Sarpiya, asked the City of Rockford for a used FEMA trailer. He thought a way to start helping his community was to start introducing computer skills. He got some volunteers, and some companies gave him computers. He started teaching people how to do fundamental computer work from that trailer. He also realized that kids were interested in music, so he started talking about digital audio mixing. How many people do you think he had go through the trailer last year? I’ve been told it’s about 6,500. RVC is looking to partner with Samuel to create a STEM technology mobile center that will take Hour of Code and other STEM initiatives into our communities and west-side neighborhoods to teach children and families about coding, digital technology and the idea of what manufacturing and production are about. What are the career pathways and high-priority occupations that are available in this region and the manufacturing sector?
McLevige: I think it’s an interesting idea. When I think about where Woodward is and where it’s going, I can tell there’ll be some form of internal expertise we’ll have to have. I suspect having an incubation center that can focus on this advanced manufacturing will really set the differentiator. If we don’t do it, some other city will.
Jensen: We have to figure out what skill sets businesses need so that we can prepare people in our communities. It’s going to be a continual investment. If we figure this out, it’ll separate our region from others, and I think businesses will find that attractive.
Speaking of community attraction, Transform Rockford has spent the past five years trying to improve the perceptions and attitudes of this region. How is that effort impacting your organizations?
Kopala: Transform Rockford is crucial to a lot of the things we’ve talked about today. It will make a difference attracting workers from elsewhere to come into the area, because an active, vibrant, meaningful life is essential to getting people to prosper. As I talk about the area, I always hear the K-12 system has a legacy of not being world-class; that’s a huge detractor. And there’s a perception that there’s not a lot to do here. Well, there’s a lot to enjoy about this region. That perception needs to be changed, and I think Transform Rockford is crucial to doing that. When you look at the work they’re doing on K-12 and lifestyle fulfillment, there are many opportunities to benefit every company in this room.
McLevige: Everything Transform Rockford is doing is making it easier for Woodward to do businesses. It’s a multifaceted organization, it’s bringing leaders from all across Rockford, and it’s working to improve quality of life. It’s helping Woodward to recruit. It’s helping to improve infrastructure, which helps Woodward to do business. And they’re generally improving the business environment – which helps Woodward.
There’s a lot of talk on the shop floor about the need to address “brain drain,” that is, replacing the knowledge lost when waves of retirements happen. To what extent does it impact the engineering side of your business?
Kopala: Brain drain’s been a problem for decades. We had a downturn in the industry in the early ’90s. We lost a large amount of intellectual capital because companies had to downsize. Their engineers went to other industries and never returned. In the early 2000s, it happened again. Now, we’re experiencing the same thing as baby boomers head toward retirement. Many aerospace companies don’t necessarily have standard product lines. They have standards and focus on custom products, and they’re all customer-specific, or vehicle/application specific. The people who designed those products have key knowledge. It’s difficult to transfer that knowledge to different teams, so the best thing you can do is have engineers coaching and bringing along the younger talent. That’s not something engineers always do well. I’ve seen a number of times where a company acquires another company, and all of a sudden, they’ve lost ‘the recipe.’ It stems back to some type of brain drain – they’ve lost the knowledge, the people, or the technical talent. The way it’s always been dealt with is extensive documentation. I’ve seen this issue as a business cycle phenomenon for the past 35 years. This just happens to be another round, and I expect it’s going to be significant again.
Woerner: We have a couple of individuals who have, combined, over 100 years of experience. These are people whom anybody around the world might call for advice. But, we’re fortunate enough that these individuals are willing to mentor our young talent. We want them to guide the direction of a project and say, ‘Don’t do that because I’ve seen that happen.’ They’re filtering new ideas and letting younger people learn from their own mistakes – just so long as it doesn’t impact the customer.
Schedler: Recently I had a conversation with an industry associate who told me their head engineer retired and since then, the company has failed to come up with new innovations, which can be quite crippling in our industry. We have experienced some growing pains due to ‘brain drain’ in the past, but we were able to overcome these by taking a few sidesteps, learning from these opportunities and moving forward. Situations such as these have to be anticipated and prepared for, in order to minimize the overall impact when they do happen.
McLevige: In aerospace, products are in service for 30 or 40 years, so it’s inevitable that the most knowledgeable people are going to leave. We do several things at Woodward to mitigate that. We map all the competencies in engineering and identify if there are any single-point failures. We try to identify somebody they can mentor, and we adjust their role. When their successor has questions, they’re still in the building. Our human resources department is testing partial retirements for certain people. If we believe they have specific significant knowledge, they can partially retire and help maintain some of the documentation, so that way the change is as orderly as possible.
Szalanski: The culture is changing. You’re not going to hire an engineer today who will be with you in four years. We’ve got a bunch of people who have been at UTC for 30 or 40 years. You’re not going to have that anymore. You hire someone who’s there for two years, and then you’ve got another person who’s there two more years, and then they leave. I’m different. A lot of my friends are like, ‘You’ve been with UTC for 10 years? I can’t believe it.’ They’ve all had six or seven jobs. In 20 or 30 years, I don’t think you’re going to have people who are 30- or 35-year veterans working on the same product line. It’s a complete paradigm change right now because people who are coming out of school don’t stick around.
Jensen: I worry about where that innovation knowledge goes. Because some of the people you’re going to lose are the innovators. They’re the ones who will make things happen and help to bring new solutions to market.
Szalanski: You can reward them and give them opportunity, but people aren’t tied to their companies like they were. In the past, employees wouldn’t leave because they had a pension. Now, my 401(k) will go with me wherever I go. My fear is that we’re not going to have long-term employees who are going to have that tribal knowledge that comes with 25 years of experience. So, we’re going to have to harness and transfer that innovation while they’re with the company for five years, save it and move it from one person to another.
Kopala: It’s a really tricky problem in aerospace because there are several things converging simultaneously. The baby boomers are retiring. There are new people coming into the industry who are changing jobs faster than the five-year development cycle in aerospace. The two- and four-year players won’t complete a single project end to end. So, what do those people really learn if they’ve never seen the flight test or actually taken a job to production? They’re not going have the same value farther in their careers as the people who live through a full development. Ingenium has a lot of staff who are not in the retirement cycle but are at the 25- or 30-year mark. They’ve seen many things fly, many things go to space, many missile torpedo systems, and such. Our best goal for retaining new people is to vet them to make sure they love aerospace in the first place.