NIU participates in effort to win federal funding to strengthen aerospace industry in Rockford

Rena Cotsones
Rena Cotsones

Seven area groups collaborated and applied for a federal grant that could significantly strengthen the region’s aerospace industry.

The announcement was made Tuesday at the NIU-Rockford campus. Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering & Engineering Technology, also spoke at the news conference.

Rena Cotsones, NIU’s assistant vice president for regional engagement in Rockford said, “We are here to celebrate a milestone in the increasingly strong, local collaboration among higher education, economic development and workforce development. In today’s economic climate, collaboration is not just a good idea, it is an imperative.”

The grant application was for the “Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge” (JAIC) that is funded by the Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA), Department of Labor Employment Training Administration (ETA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

The organizations submitting the grant application are Northern Illinois University, Rock Valley College, Rockford Area Economic Development Council and EIGERlab. Additional partner groups include the Rockford Region Economic Development District, Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Workforce Investment Board.

Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge

To accelerate innovation-fueled job creation and global competitiveness, the federal government announced a $33 million Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge to spur economic growth through public-private partnerships in at least 20 regions around the country.

The JAIC leverages existing resources from 16 federal agencies and awards funds to regions that demonstrate the existence of high-growth industries that support a wide range of economic and workforce development activities.

Cotsones added, “None of us can predict how our proposal will fare in what is sure to be an extremely competitive federal process. But our region has already achieved something very valuable in responding to this opportunity. We have considered how to leverage the strengths of one of our most successful and high-potential industries. We have found creative ways to utilize our region’s assets to accelerate job growth. This collective thinking will allow us to move on to other projects and opportunities in a more informed manner. And the collaborative spirit engendered will motivate us to find other ways to work together for the good of the community.”

Janyce Fadden, Rockford Area Economic Development Council’s president, said the grant application focused on three areas to accelerate success for small- and medium-sized enterprises in the region’s aerospace cluster: commercialization, sustainability and workforce training.

  • Identify projects that have a high potential for commercialization. This means local small- and medium-sized enterprises improve their global competitiveness so we have more exports. That in turn means more wealth for our community.
  • Help early-stage aerospace companies achieve sustainability sooner.
  • Accelerate workforce training. College students, continuing-education employees or under-employed persons can connect to training opportunities in the rapidly growing aerospace industry.

Fadden said there are more than 90 area companies that design and manufacture products and services for the aerospace market. Job creation and innovation will be accelerated when these products and services are marketed more strongly throughout the region, nation and worldwide.

When the local supply chain shares technical knowledge, they will grow faster. And, when disadvantaged populations enter the aerospace workforce through education, training and internship opportunities, the workforce pipeline will be more robust and employers will not need to recruit outside the region. This population includes women, veterans and first-generation college students.

The establishment of the Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN) in 2010 is already helping regional aerospace companies have more bid opportunities. In 2007, there was only one aerospace project identified for the region. Currently, RAAN has identified 12 projects in aerospace and aviation that could result in 2,100 jobs and $180 million in potential investment.

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