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Industry Clusters Drive Strategic Growth in Illinois

Discover how Illinois' vibrant industry clusers, including aviation, aerospace, machinery manufacturing and food production, are driving growth across the state.

By Emily McMackin on May 26, 2015

The future of aviation and aerospace is taking shape in the Rockford area of Illinois. Home to more than 200 industry-specific suppliers, the two-county region in the northernmost corner of the state is a hotbed for companies that produce everything from electric power systems for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to software that generates paperless documents for pilots. “In Rockford, we don’t do obvious stuff in aerospace,” says Jeff Kaney, CEO of the Kaney Group, which operates engineering firm Kaney Aerospace and precision manufacturer Ardekin Precision.

“We are heavily into what happens on the inside of the plane.” That niche distinguishes Rockford’s aviation and aerospace supply chain from others nationwide. Local industry leaders are building on that momentum through the Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN), a group Kaney founded to bring area suppliers together to attract more business to the region. Members attend industry trade shows to get the word out about Rockford, but much of their effort focuses on the workforce. The group founded the Institute for Engineering and Technology – Aerospace (JiET-A), a program that works with area universities, colleges and school systems to provide students with the mentoring and internships they need to land high-paying jobs across the industry. Its efforts are paying off. Collaboration with higher education institutions like Rock Valley College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to boost industry training programs helped attract global aircraft service provider AAR. The company is constructing a maintenance, repair and overhaul hangar at the Rockford International Airport that will create 500 new jobs. AAR cited Rockford’s specially trained workforce as a top reason for locating there. Bolstering the pipeline of local talent also has helped Rockford retain top employers like fuel systems components maker Woodward Aircraft Turbine Systems, a Tier I supplier that has launched a $200 million expansion of its campus, where it will add 660 jobs locally.

“Companies that were going to move have stayed, and part of it is what we have been doing as a community,” Kaney says. “Alignment is key – and that’s why we have been successful.”

Blueprint for Growth

Rockford’s success exemplifies the strategic growth the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity (DCEO) hopes to replicate throughout the state as part of its blueprint for boosting business investment, job creation and innovation in Illinois. In July 2014, DCEO released a strategic plan identifying regional industry clusters with the potential for high growth.

“There are seven of these key sectors in every region of the state – and each region is strong in at least two of them,” says a DCEO spokesperson. “Matching up these sectors to these regions gives us a matrix to support growth.” As part of this approach, DCEO will work closely with economic development organizations at the regional level to help them determine which industries they are best suited to pursue and remove obstacles along the way. Rockford’s aviation and aerospace cluster is part of the larger advanced materials industry sector driving growth across the northern half of Illinois. Other pockets of rapid industry growth include agribusiness, food processing and technology in West Central Illinois, machinery and fabricated metal products manufacturing in North Central Illinois, and transportation and logistics in Southwest Illinois.

Building the Workforce

Making the workforce more competitive for these industries is another initiative of DCEO’s plan, which aims to expand the number of workers in training programs by 25 percent in the next five years and the percentage of workers with a degree or certificate to 51 percent. Along with supporting a proposed job training tax credit for businesses, the plan advocates for more apprenticeships and partnerships between industries and higher education institutions to build a sustainable base of talent for the future. An innovative partnership flourishing in the Quad Cities is the United Township Area Career Center’s manufacturing technology program, which allows students to train with precision metal workers and engineers at John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline and its Global Crop Harvesting Product and Development Center in Silvis. Students work inside state-of-the-art labs where they help design, test and manufacture combines.

“Any training John Deere has for their employees, our kids have access to that,” says program director John McCormick. Students in the program are eligible for scholarships, internships and employment by John Deere, and many have gone on to work for the company and other manufacturers like Caterpillar and Alcoa. “Our kids get a leg up because they are prepared for these jobs, and the expectations have already been set for them,” McCormick says. Read how Illinois attracts worldwide businesses.

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