Northwest Quarterly’s 2022 Career Guide

No matter your age, it’s never too late to evaluate your career path. If you need a little guidance along the way, our region has many resources to guide you to the next step.

Rockford Public Schools’ annual Career Expo brings students into contact with working professionals who can share the ways they’ve navigated careers in their fields. It gives local students a jump-start on their journey.

Have you found your life’s passion yet? If you’re still searching, you’re not alone. Studies show many older workers have changed jobs nearly a dozen times and younger workers are switching every few years.

Now, imagine if there was a way to eliminate some of that guesswork for young people – and to do it while filling high-demand fields like manufacturing, health care and education. There’s no need to imagine, because our area schools have spent much of the past decade building just such a talent pipeline.

Every high schooler in Rockford Public Schools is already engaging in the process of becoming college, career and life ready, thanks to District 205’s innovative College & Career Academies. Other area school districts are following suit and finding a true advantage to this approach.

“If we don’t show them what jobs are here in the community, they won’t know what a career looks like in Rockford,” says Jessica Hayes, work-based learning coordinator for RPS. “It’s so important for them to see. They have to go through those stages of ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but maybe I want to see this or maybe I want to do this.’ Or they go visit a nursing job and they can’t stand the sight of blood. ‘OK, I’m not going to nursing school anymore.’ But we have to give them that guidance on what career opportunities are there and what it takes to get there.”

The process begins freshman year when students at Rockford’s five public high schools take a deep dive into career paths of all kinds. They meet working professionals in the classroom, explore new avenues, and, in October, they visit a Career Expo that exposes them to more than 100 local employers. Last year, nearly 2,000 students met about 600 area professionals.

In sophomore year, students enter one of four “academies,” small learning communities focused around four distinct areas: business, production, service and health. Students then pursue electives covering some 15 pathways angled at specific career tracks such as engineering, entrepreneurship, studio art, graphic design, skilled trades, public safety, hospitality and nursing/pre-med.

By junior year, it’s time for job shadowing, and students are invited into local businesses to see firsthand how the career path works. Manufacturers like Circle Boring have invited groups of students to watch, observe and do a little hands-on learning in the shop.

“Getting our students out to see those careers they’re learning about is so important,” says Hayes. “They can take these classes all they want, but until they’re actually, physically there looking at the job they don’t understand all of the requirements.”

They can ask questions, observe, and learn about smaller details like salary, certifications, education and “soft skills” – qualities like communication and punctuality that students develop in the classroom but practice in the real world.

“You can be the greatest programmer on a CNC machine that we’ve ever seen, but if you can’t show up to work on time, that programming’s not going to make any difference,” says Hayes. “Or, you can be the best graphic designer, but if you can’t show up and be responsible for doing your work that’s not going to do you any favors to an employer.”

Senior year brings a capstone project that might involve an internship or deeper career experience. All the while, students are following their pathway through dual credit programs with Rock Valley College and Rockford University that can result in actual certifications and a full-time job after graduation.

“In our education pathway, students can get dual credit while they’re at RPS, and then they can go to Rockford University and come back to work in our district,” says Hayes. “When they take this route, they can get loan forgiveness if they work in the district for a certain time. It’s also helping us to address the teacher shortage by creating our own talent pipeline.”

As much as this approach is helping students to find their way, its impact on local employers can’t be underestimated, says Hayes. By encouraging young people to find their way early in life, RPS is growing talent locally for many jobs – including high-demand titles like engineer, machinist, nurse, doctor – where local businesses would otherwise have to recruit from out-of-town. By contrast, local people are more likely to stay in the community long-term.

“We have a growing population of people entering retirement, and a lot of those jobs aren’t going to be backfilled because we just don’t have the skill set on some jobs, especially in manufacturing,” says Hayes. “So, it’s important to guide our students on what’s available to them. We’re guiding them on what options there are, so that after graduation they have every tool possible to make the best decision for what they want for their future.”

If you or someone you know is still trying to find the right pathway to success, the following pages offer many ideas for getting started. Community colleges and technical schools offer associate degrees and certifications in areas like manufacturing, where a little extra knowledge and experience can accelerate a person’s income and job prospects.

At the same time, many local companies offer apprenticeships so someone can attend school while learning and working on the shop floor. This is also the case for many a beauty school, where students learn and practice in real-world settings.

“If you can’t afford college or you’re not sure it’s for you, these apprenticeship programs are phenomenal,” says Hayes. “You make very good money, you have very good opportunities, you work and go to school at the same time. It’s great for people who need options.”

Similarly, local trade unions, like Local 23 for pipefitters and IBEW for electricians, offer a starting point for fulfilling careers in building, construction, assembly and more. New members start with an apprenticeship and have access to ongoing education, personal benefits and good wages throughout their careers.

Age is rarely a boundary in today’s education scene. Indeed, the average student at Rock Valley College is in their mid-20s, proving it’s never too late to follow your dreams and establish a fulfilling career that satisfies your interests and the needs of your family. Isn’t it time to get started?

How to Support Career Pathways

Nearly 100 area employers are already engaged with Rockford Public Schools’ students on their path toward college, career and life readiness. There are many ways to engage, and it depends on how much a company can commit.

Industry experts are sharing their experience while guest speaking at area high schools. Some are helping to lead mock interviews or teach the nuances of resume writing. Still others join in the annual Career Expo, where they’ll engage with nearly 2,000 area freshmen.

Those capable of hosting students for an in-person job shadow are always needed, says Jessica Hayes, work-based learning coordinator for RPS. Manufacturers, auto shops, medical facilities and offices alike are helping students to better understand the demands of these workplaces by peeking inside a daily operation.

No level of commitment is too small, says Hayes. Every bit helps.

“It’s a partnership, so we’ll look at where we need them, which school needs them and what benefits the partners, too,” she says.

To get started, contact Jessica Hayes at [email protected].

Blackhawk Technical College

Janesville • • (608) 757-7710

Regional emergency services will soon be able to take full advantage of a comprehensive training facility designed to educate first responders.

Blackhawk Technical College’s expansive Public Safety Transportation Center (PSTC) is expected to be completed by the end of June. Located on the northeast corner of Blackhawk’s central campus at 6004 S. County Road G (Prairie Street) between Beloit and Janesville, the new facility will serve first-responder programs including fire, EMS and law enforcement with initial and ongoing training in all areas of enforcement and response.

Blackhawk purchased the land at West Sunny Lane and Prairie Street in 2018. It was an opportunity the college couldn’t pass up, as use of nearby parking lots for truck driver and law enforcement training was becoming more confined, and more space was needed for these growing academic areas.

In November 2020, voters in Rock and Green counties approved Blackhawk Technical College’s $32 million referendum funding school improvements.

“The concrete 300-foot by 500-foot vehicle training pad is already being used to develop physical agility, traffic stop training, driver training and fire truck and ambulance operations,” says Rob Balsamo, fire and EMS program coordinator.

Balsamo also says additional training spaces were needed to best serve these students, law enforcement agencies, fire departments and distribution centers. After reviewing each need, Blackhawk proposed a multi-purpose training center for eight areas: electric power distribution, EMS/EMT, fire protection technician, law enforcement, CDL/truck driver training, auto technician, diesel and heavy equipment technician, and motorcycle rider safety.

The center also serves select workforce and community development offerings.

By June, nearly all of the projects on the main training grounds are expected to be complete and open for use, which’ll be a significant enhancement for Blackhawk’s safety and transportation programs.

“To now see it come to fruition makes me really proud of the time and effort we have put in on this project, knowing that it is dramatically going to improve what we do at Blackhawk,” adds Balsamo, who also is on the project leader team.

Industry and community partners have supported the project from its earliest stages and have continued to do so during the construction phase. The new facility has also generated interest from local employers focused on logistics and transportation sectors, as well.

“The ability to utilize this state-of-the-art facility and its unique layout will continue to allow us to provide real and relevant hands-on training scenarios that meet the needs of our local and regional business partners,” says Mark Borowicz, Blackhawk’s director of workforce and community development.

Balsamo adds that recruitment has decreased in first-responder services nationwide, a factor he hopes the PSTC will remedy because it opens the door to top-quality training on a regional level.

“The new PSTC provides more opportunities not only for new recruits but also classes to upgrade those in existing careers,” Balsamo says. “Once the construction is completed, we’ll be able to do so much more to help people achieve their goals and dreams.”

Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 23

Rockford • • (815) 397-0350

Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVACR Local 23 has invested in an ever-growing, state-of-the-art training facility on Boeing Drive, in Rockford. Local 23 specializes in mechanical trades, such as plumbing, pipefitting, and HVAC and refrigeration.

Simply put, they keep industries, businesses – and even your home – running smoothly.

To keep pace with the technological needs of all industries, constant training is vital.

“Our three mechanical trades have more schooling than all of the other trades do, which is why we spend the most money and time on training our people,” says Tim Huff, business manager, financial secretary and treasurer of Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVACR Local 23, which serves six counties in northwest Illinois, extending from Boone County to the Mississippi River.

Five-year apprenticeship programs require 1,250 classroom hours and 8,500 on-the-job hours, which is more rigorous than similar college courses, says Greg Harle, Local 23 president and training director.

Class sizes are smaller, too, but the biggest difference is union apprentices don’t pay tuition. The union pays them to learn.

Huff says new apprentices currently earn more than $20 per hour, plus benefits. Journeymen earn more than $51 per hour, plus benefits.

He also wants to quell the notion that union contractors are automatically more expensive than non-union workers.

“The initial bid might be more expensive, but our people are more qualified and have more training than anyone in the non-union sector. Period. Our contractors don’t upsell customers,” Huff says. “Some less-scrupulous contractors might present a lower initial bid to land the job, only to add costs they omitted in order to keep their bid lower.”

In addition to drawing more women into the mechanical trades, Local 23 also wants to lure young people and even not-so-young people who are ready for a career change.

When he was in high school, Huff says kids who weren’t on the college path were looked down on. But college – and college debt – isn’t for everyone.

“We’re looking for the brightest students,” he says. “We’re looking for students who want to excel and be leaders. Middle schools and high schools are finally realizing that now.”

Harle’s message for area high schools is blunt.

“If your football team is a bigger investment than your vocational training centers, you’re not preparing young men and women for possible career opportunities,” he says.

With its 75th anniversary on the horizon, Harle says Local 23’s long-term goal is for the training program to become accredited just like those at community colleges.

“Our other goal is for interim, industry-recognized credentials to build upon as our apprentices progress through the program,” he adds.

No matter where technology may be headed, Huff knows Local 23 members are well-positioned, and trained, to handle it.

“We have to keep pace with new technologies or we’re going to be left behind,” he says. “We want to be the leader in the construction industry, so we’ll be learning whatever it takes to keep pace with the ever-changing world around us.”

Rockford Career College

Rockford • • (888) 680-6682

While our country was fighting the Civil War, two businessmen recognized a need for people who are trained in secretarial skills and bookkeeping. They understood those skills were needed for local businesses to thrive, so in 1862, they put their heads together and started Rockford’s first business college.

Today, 160 years later, Rockford Career College is still offering students the necessary training they need to grow their careers while helping companies grow, as well. The college has stood side-by-side with area business for more than a century to help students seamlessly transition into the workforce.

What separates Rockford Career College from other schools in the area are the small class sizes, which allow students the chance to learn in a smaller, more intimate setting. Students also get training and guidance from proven instructors with real-world experience.

Classes are hands-on, and during the final weeks of their schooling, students can work off-campus for a local employer, giving them the chance to learn and receive on-the-job training.

The college goes above and beyond to help students succeed by offering free tutoring, financial aid and connections with local businesses.

Rockford Career College provides students with programming in six career fields, including the skilled trades, a field that has courses and programs specifically designed to develop important skill sets. This critical approach to skill-building is designed to expand a student’s knowledge base, which in turn sets them up for a prosperous career. The training offered can also propel current employees to a higher-paying position in the next phase of their career.

There are several skilled trade programs available at the college, including automotive technology; CNC and robotic manufacturing; construction administration; electrical technician; heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration technician; and welding.

The programs are skillfully designed with the help of local employers, so students who leave the program can easily transition into the real-world and start their careers. The best part? They can get the necessary training in as little as 10 months, so they can get a quick start.

Mitchell Thompson, a graduate of Rockford Career College, enrolled in the CNC and robotic manufacturing technology program and learned technical skills in the on-campus lab. During his training, he also learned about the various functions of the metallurgical laboratory and equipment; concepts of CNC lathe machining; and the basics of manual part programming for drilling, turning and threading operations.

Thompson graduated on the school’s Dean’s list and became a CNC machinist in less than a year. Careers in this profession include stone and tile manufacturing, automotive manufacturing and engineering, among others.

Students are also spoiled with a career services team that has networked with numerous employers and is ready and willing to help.

The name and locations might’ve changed over the years, but the end goal of Rockford Career College has always been the same. Their goal is to prepare students for a quick and seamless entry into the workforce.

IBEW Local 364

Rockford • • (815) 398-6282

When it’s time to graduate high school, many young people think about becoming a doctor, lawyer, firefighter or police officer.

Not so many think about working in the trades. And yet, working with a trade union not only helps to fill the workforce with critical, high-demand jobs. It also ensures a fulfilling career track that comes with fair wages and benefits, including insurance and a retirement plan.

The best part is these careers can be obtained without attending college.

Each year, International Brotherhood of Electrical workers Local 364, or the IBEW, in Rockford, joins with area trade unions for a career fair that targets middle and high school students. It gives the IBEW a chance to show off its various career paths.

In addition to local graduates, the IBEW also spends time trying to get in front of military veterans discharged from service, especially those who’ve had some experience with electricity.

IBEW Local 364 takes apprenticeship applications on the first Tuesday of each month. Applicants must pass an aptitude test before scheduling an in-person interview. Each fall, anyone who’s made the cut can begin their apprentice classes. 

Throughout their training, apprentices learn the variety of jobs an electrician can have, a list that may include conduit bending, motor controls, programmable logic controllers, fire alarm and security systems and fiber optic cabling.

“There’s everything from smaller residential projects all the way up to very big jobs,” says Chris Molander, business agent at IBEW Local 364. “We cover everything from the wiring behind the walls up to very high-voltage. There’s wireless everything that we have to be able to install and troubleshoot.

“We might pull cables as big as your arm one day and install pipe that’s 6 inches in diameter the next, all the way down to a little half-inch pipe,” he continues. “We fill them with wire and fiber optic cable.”

IBEW Local 364 electricians continue to play an important role in many of the Rockford area’s biggest construction projects.

“We wire houses, nuclear plants, hospitals, car plants, data centers, wind and solar farms, and everything in between,” he says.

Apprentices have plenty of exposure to these jobs during their training. Once they’ve completed their apprenticeship with IBEW Local 364, they can enjoy a “first-class paycheck, pension and health insurance through the union,” says Molander. 

“When you come out of the apprenticeship, you’ll have 10,000 hours of on-the-job training,” he adds. “From our apprenticeship program, they’ll also receive an associate degree in applied science from Rock Valley College. Our apprentices are trained better than anybody, and they don’t have any college debt.”