Northwest Quarterly’s 2023 Career Guide

Regardless of age, it’s never too late to consider your career path. If you require advice along the way, our region has many resources to direct you to the next phase.

Alternative Paths to Rewarding Careers

Following high school, many people are left pondering what’s next: is it better to go to college or to enter the workforce?

The answer is complicated. Going to college requires years of studying and possibly debt. And, after you receive your degree you may still wonder what you want to do. Entering the workforce right away can have its risks, but it also leads to many rewards because in our region, there are several pathways that lead to fulfilling and well-paying careers.

One of these routes is to work for a trade union, where all workers begin as apprentices and receive ongoing education – with a track for advancement, good wages and steady benefits. Trade unions work in many environments, though you’ll find a strong concentration of these workers in construction, doing things like electrical work, pipefitting and carpentry. These are the sorts of people who like to work with their hands and learn in a rigorous, hands-on environment, and they thrive as their work in the classroom translates into real-life skills. Best of all, many trade union jobs are in high demand these days.

Outside of the trades, our region’s manufacturers offer a pathway to fulfilling careers in high-tech environments. In today’s advanced manufacturing environment, workers often need extra education in the form of industrial certifications. These may include training in computerized machining, mechatronics, or some other advanced skill set, and training is often completed affordably, within a matter of months, at a community college. These certifications then become a gateway to our region’s rich environment of manufacturers.

Of course, there are also alternative routes into fields like veterinary medicine, medical coding, nursing, and business or legal services.

Many high schools in our region are getting in on the act, doing their part to set up students with degrees, certificates and actual work experience before they graduate. That’s a good start, but it’s important to note that these alternative career paths are just as applicable to a new graduate as they are to a more established worker who’s simply looking for a new direction.

College isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK, because it takes a wide variety of skill sets and backgrounds to keep our region’s economy moving along. If you have a young student in your home or are looking to relaunch your career, there’s never been a better time to equip yourself with the tools for success.

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,” Molander 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.” 

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 for those who qualify 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 electrical technician, welder, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration technician.

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.

Adrein Turner, Sr., a graduate of Rockford Career College, enrolled in the Electrical Technician program and learned technical skills in the on-campus lab. During his time at Rockford he learned about installing electrical wiring and outlets, repairing or upgrading electrical systems, interpreting blueprints and maintaining safety protocols.

Turner graduated from the program and is now working as an electrical technician for Americold Logistics, one of the world’s leaders in temperature-controlled warehouses.

“The Electrical Technician program at Rockford gave me greater knowledge and the skill set needed for my field of work,” says Turner. “The hands-on learning environment increased my confidence, so I was prepared to take on new and greater challenges in the automation industry. I am now a critical part in the startup of new facilities.”

Students benefit from 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. Its goal is to prepare students for a quick and seamless entry into the workforce.