Regional partners reported results and progress achieved during the first year of the federal Jobs & Innovation Accelerator Challenge (JIAC) grant, which is focused on four major areas – branding, product innovation, work-force pipeline and business entrepreneurship.
Examples of innovative and unique services introduced include a new engineering internship program, an integrated marketing strategy and university students connected to area manufacturing companies to enhance product innovation.
The partnership surpassed its two year jobs goal of 2,100 jobs in just one year with announcements totaling 1,600 new jobs and 1,750 retained jobs.
In 2012, a collaborative effort, led by NIU, received one of only 20 national JIAC grants to help accelerate job creation, global competitiveness and innovation for small and medium-sized aerospace companies in the region.
The grant is federally funded in part by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), Department of Labor’s Employment Training Administration (ETA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA). Together the grant partners – NIU, Rockford Area Economic Development Council, Rock Valley College, EIGERlab and the Boone and Winnebago Counties Workforce Investment Board – are also completing the grant’s goal of spurring economic growth through public-private partnerships.
The update took place during the first NIU Engineering Job Fair held at NIU-Rockford bringing together more than 100 NIU senior engineering students and 23 Rockford-area companies seeking to hire new talent.
“The JIAC grant has been essential in aligning and accelerating our region’s capability to support our most successful and high-potential industries by finding creative and collaborative ways to use our region’s assets and accelerate job growth,” said Rena Cotsones, assistant vice president for regional engagement at Northern Illinois University.
Global Branding and Awareness
The grant partners branded the Rockford region as “Mid-America’s best mid-sized international region for aerospace and aviation companies.” Thanks to an unprecedented level of civic collaboration among government, education and business, the consortium participated at globally recognized trade shows.
Nineteen area companies joined the four tradeshow delegations including the State of Illinois, Winnebago County, Greater Rockford Airport Authority and the RAEDC. Sales leads and orders were achieved leading to increased business activity, an indicator of job creation.
“The JIAC grant exposed businesses from the Rockford Region on a global stage,” said Eric Voyles, vice president of national business development at the RAEDC.Building the Aerospace and High-Tech Workforce
The JIAC partners’ commitment to growing the region’s own aerospace workforce led to the creation of unique academic programs.
One significant program is the Joint Institute for Engineering and Technology – Aerospace (JiET-A), an innovative partnership among aerospace businesses, higher education institutions and students for the advancement of the aerospace industry workforce.
Working with JiET-A leadership and participating colleges and universities in the Rockford region, students select their starting point and design their career pathway to their chosen professional destination. Innovative, high-quality internships are integrated with academic curriculum so that when students graduate, they enter the aerospace industry with valuable – and marketable – skills and experience.
First-year accomplishments in creating a pipeline of interns include 92 student applications, 24 students approved for direct hire, 18 employed in integrated internships with 42 internship openings estimated in the near future with participating companies.
Another academic program that facilitated success for engineering students is the JIAC Rockford Aerospace Cluster Engineering Program established at Rock Valley College. This program expedites a student’s progression from community college engineering student at RVC to baccalaureate engineering degree student at NIU. Twenty-two students are or have participated in this RVC program, with one student already transferred to NIU’s engineering college and three dually-enrolled at RVC and NIU. The majority of students meet the grant’s targeted criteria.
“After my graduation from Rock Valley College, the assistance of the JiET-A program allowed me to continue taking a full-time course load at Northern while simultaneously gaining invaluable real-world experience as an intern at UTC Aerospace Systems,” said JIAC student Audrey Pearson.
“Through academics, mentoring, and internship opportunities, we are continuing to grow our own engineers for the region,” said Jack Becherer, president of Rock Valley College. “Our key community partnerships and collaborations have ensured that these programs achieved success in their first year.”
NIU has successfully placed five engineering students from its Engineers-In-Residence program at five Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN) member companies, resulting in accelerated product advancement of high tech materials and control systems.
In addition, EIGERlab, the region’s business incubator and product development center, assisted nine companies with prototype fabrication using its 3D additive manufacturing equipment.
“NIU has a long history of working with Rockford area companies on innovative processes and product development,” said Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. “The powerful combination of assets and expertise focused on achieving the goals of this grant to accelerate the development of the aerospace cluster in Rockford is very impressive and the outcomes speak for themselves.”
Supporting High-Tech Entrepreneurship
The EIGERlab licensed the SBA’s Growth Wheel business strategy tool and created three peer-to-peer roundtable groups for the aerospace, advance manufacturing and minority communities. Seven participants used the Growth Wheel process to advance their company.
Collaboration is the Winning Strategy for the Region
The willing collaboration of these JIAC partners resulted in the alignment and acceleration of the aerospace growth system. The aerospace growth system grew rapidly because its partners willingly joined each other in aligning common goals and achieved JIAC funding to finance the implementation of the four-focused approach – branding, product innovation, workforce pipeline and business entrepreneurship.
The partners are committed to continuing this strong collaboration beyond the life of the JIAC grant.