Workforce development partners build on successes

April 28, 2018 GMT

STERLING – The region’s workforce development partners remain focused on a long-term plan as they prepare to unveil its latest success story next month.

The final touches are being put on the Machining Technology Center at Whiteside Area Career Center before it is officially opened to the public at a ribbon-cutting ceremony set for 10 a.m. May 22.

The initial outlay for the lab is $275,000, and more equipment will be added later. The lab is the result of partnerships between the career center, Sauk Valley Community College and several area manufacturers led by Frantz Mfg. Company President and Chief Operating Officer John Gvozdjak.

The center has been designed to be a big asset for the students at the career center and the college.

“Sauk had eliminated its machining programs in the late 1990s and it’s being reborn there,” Gvozdjak said. “Sauk can use the center at night, and during the summer, companies can train their employees on the machines.”

A plus for the educators is that they didn’t have to pick up much of the cost.

“This was a community-based project and outside money paid for most of it,” said Jerry Binder, director of development at the career center. “We had a matching grant from an anonymous donor, and the businesses chipped in with a lot of it.”

Sauk did buy some equipment, and the career center paid for air conditioning and a few building upgrades to accommodate the area.

The center will focus on trades that fill needs for area manufacturers and put students on a solid career path. Tool and die, lathe and welding are among the industrial jobs consistently cited as most difficult to fill throughout the region.

“When we open, we’ll have two new lathes, three CNC machines, a mini-CAD area and eight simulators,” Binder said. “The unemployment rate is down here, but a lot of employers are looking for people in these areas and it could be a lot lower.”

The simulators have the same boards as CNC machines, allowing students to plug in elements without actually using the components. Mistakes and changes can be easily fixed without wasting materials.

The center is the product of a much larger intitiative that has produced a revamped welding lab, the Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) program, and the Multicraft Technology and Multicraft Extended Internship programs.

“This is really a 3-phase initiative that started in 2009-2010,” Binder said. “We started by redeveloping the welding lab, and Multicraft has been the focus over the last 3 years.”

As the partners continued to assess manufacturing needs, machining took center stage, and a committee was set up in 2015. Fundraising started about 3 years ago and the manufacturers have spent 2 years designing the center.

Partners maintain focus

While it’s easy to talk about partnerships, collaboration and regionalism, the area seems to have found a group of leaders who are staying the course and building on their workforce development successes.

Gvozdjak said the NIU Center for Governmental Studies report “Promoting Prosperity in Northwest Illinois” was a cornerstone of the progress that has been made.

“A key to why this is working is how far we’ve come in building community awareness about manufacturing,” Gvozdjak said. “The first recommendation in the NIU study was to improve the workforce for the jobs that were already here.”

The study reaffirmed that the region’s demographics positioned it well for growth in manufacturing and agriculture. Manufacturing accounts for about 20 percent of the area’s economic productivity – about double that of the rest of the state.

On the heels of the comprehensive NIU study, it was decided that observing national Manufacturing Day would be a good way to jump-start awareness. The Sauk Valley started planning events in 2014 and the scope of the observance continues to grow.

“We opened doors to the region’s high schools and let students and their parents know how careers in manufacturing have changed,” Gvozdjak said. “They could have a great career, but they usually needed more than a high school diploma.”

The next step was a partnership with Sauk to set up the Multicraft Internship Program. The work-study program was based on KY FAME, a 2-year technical program developed by Toyota in central Kentucky. It provided real work experience for students, giving them advanced training for high-skill positions in robotics and automation.

Sauk set up the class schedule so students in the internship program have 3 days a week open for part-time paid work.

“This didn’t require a lot of money, it just required the appropriate scheduling,” Gvozdjak said. “The manufacturers paid the wages, but it gives them a chance to assess them, and when they graduate, we’ll hopefully get some good hires.”

With awareness raised and the Multicraft programs in place, the workforce development efforts shifted to machining, which does require some spending.

Changing educational trends

Career readiness has been heavily emphasized in the Sterling school district for many years now, and partnerships continue to open the doors of opportunity a bit wider.

“The last 3 years, two areas of readiness – manufacturing and nursing – were the focal points of our Race to the Top initiatives,” Sterling Schools Superintendent Tad Everett said. “That led to the rationale that we should move some of our ed tech to Sauk.”

Race to the Top was a federal grant program set up during the Obama administration that rewarded states and schools for innovative educational reforms.

The focus on several areas of manufacturing is a big part of the Sterling district’s emphasis on certification as a pathway to success.

“We talk a lot about being ready when you graduate, whether it be college, certification or the military,” Everett said. “We work with the career center, Sauk and Northern Illinois University on POS – Programs of Study.”

The emphasis on certification continues statewide with initiatives such as the 60 by 25 Network that aims to ensure that 60 percent of all adults have credentials that put them on a solid career path by 2025. Currently, in Illinois, only 40 percent fall into that category.

The region has strengthened it relationship with Advance Illinois, a nonpartisan advocacy organization for state education policy. Advance Illinois is a driving force in the 60 by 25 Network and it played a key role in shaping the state’s education funding reform.

Advance Illinois representatives were in Sterling on April 19 to get input on its workforce developments efforts from about 30 business and education leaders.