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Nonprofits Help Northern Illinois Manufacturers And Schools Develop Better Workers

The manufacturing environment has changed, and companies are seeking workers who can fit into this new reality.

All companies need to find competent workers to fill their job openings. But sometimes, candidates don’t have adequate training or even an interest in taking the positions. A Rockford-area program is trying to help the local manufacturing sector solve both problems.

When Illinois companies complain that they can’t find new hires, a common explanation is that qualified workers have moved to neighboring states.

Brian Harger is a research associate at Northern Illinois University's Center for Governmental Studies

U.S. Census records did show that Illinois had a net loss of nearly 34,000 people from 2016 to 2017, while neighboring states had net population gains. Brian Harger is a research associate at the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies. He says other demographic trends also are at work.

“You have this huge glut of baby boomers who are now moving out of the workforce," he said. "The people in the succeeding generations are smaller in number; so, coming up, it’s going to be harder and harder to replace those that are leaving the workforce,” he said.

Harger says the lower birthrates normally would be augmented by immigration, but immigration from countries from which Illinois has drawn laborers has leveled off.

Center for Governmental Studies Director Diana Robinson says demographics play a role in limiting the pool of new manufacturing workers; but another issue at play is a misconception about the jobs.

“There’s a holdover and a belief that they’re dirty and low-paying, and you work in a dark, dank assembly line," she said, "and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Today’s manufacturing workspaces are very technologically equipped. They’re clean, they’re exciting, and there are terrific careers there.”

Credit Northern Illinois University
Diana Robinson directs the NIU Center for Governmental Studies.

But even with the most flattering public-relations campaigns, Robinson says that getting successful candidates for manufacturing jobs ultimately comes down to each one’s overall skills.

“Employers are looking for that magic combination of people who come in. They’ve got strong academic skills, they know how to work with others and solve problems and are reliable and dependable, and they have that extra layer of technically specific skills that allow them to do their job well,” she said.

The technical knowledge is an obvious requirement; but the other, socially oriented abilities are just as important. Robinson says these so-called “soft skills” aren’t commonly taught in technical courses. That’s why a group of Northern Illinois manufacturers and educators decided to band together to provide this blend of soft skills and job training. It’s called NIMBLE, short for Northern Illinois Manufacturers Building Lifelong Employment.

NIMBLE began about 18 months ago when Dave Young, President of the Northwest Illinois Development Alliance, talked with local manufacturers about what they needed in new workers. The alliance used what Young learned and sought funds from the Community Foundation of Northwest Illinois.

“So we applied for and received a grant under the foundation’s Education Works space, and it was to really look at things from the standpoint of demand and supply.”

Dave Young is Executive Director of the Northwest Illinois Development Alliance. His nonprofit started the negotiations that led to NIMBLE.

The group chose the U.S Chamber of Commerce Talent Pipeline Management model to guide their efforts. It recommends actually asking companies -- in this case, area manufacturers -- what they need in a job candidate. Young uses the example of five companies recruiting a maintenance electrician.

“So the key is getting those five manufacturers that all have maintenance techs to sit down and go, ‘What are the key five things we need that position to have, skills we need that position to have, so they can work at all five companies?’” he explained.

Once that’s established, Young says, it’s important for these manufacturers to get into a conversation with education and training providers.

“So you can start to talk a common language and everybody understands what are some of the soft skills," he said. "How can you build a curriculum? How can you measure progress in terms of whether or not people have increased their competency in terms of soft skills? So it creates, really, a relationship between the education training providers and the companies.”

And thus, NIMBLE was born. It started out with a group of six manufacturers but has expanded to more than 18 -- including aerospace firms like Woodward, machining companies like Ingersoll and Bergstrom, and even food manufacturers like Nuestro Queso.

Educational providers are represented at all levels. They include primary and secondary schools, such as the Rockford Public Schools system; technical education centers such as Rock Valley and Sauk Valley Community Colleges; and bastions of higher education, such as Northern Illinois University.

NIMBLE’s original meetings took place over the past two years  and led to greater communication among manufacturers and education providers.

Helping to develop new job candidates from these discussions is The Workforce Connection. This nonprofit evaluates training programs and manufacturers so they can adequately match candidates to jobs as well as disburse money from the Federal Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Executive Director Lisa Bly explains.

Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ
Lisa Bly is Executive Director at The Workforce Connection. This nonprofit connects manufacturing companies with training programs and disburses federal grants.

“We are the convener," she said. "So we find out what the gaps are that employers are saying. What are their pain points? And we bring the educational providers together. Those federal dollars are put forward to address that need.”

Young says NIMBLE’s emphasis on helping small- to medium-sized companies means their patrons rely on staffing agencies for human resource purposes. The Workforce Connection, he says, can help ensure the companies don’t become a revolving door.

“Wouldn’t it be better if, when the staffing agencies interview those candidates, where they identify the gaps in training, that we, through the Workforce Connection, can work with those staffing agencies to include, improve their candidates’ workforce readiness so that when they’re placed, they don’t turn over?” he asked.

Young says this model is suitable for both recent graduates and older adults who may want to “upscale” themselves back into the workforce by picking up new skills.

But NIMBLE is only the first step to filling manufacturing jobs. Young says companies will need to continue working with educational institutions to get the best match of soft skills and training, as well as present a more positive image about manufacturing industries. NIMBLE also is working on an action plan to push forward with its work.

The good news is that the Talent Pipeline Management model isn’t limited to the manufacturing sector. Young says a group in Danville -- the Vermilion Advantage -- is using the same model for its local business, while Bly says the Workforce Connection is performing similar “convening” services to a group of five healthcare providers in Northwest Illinois.

Ultimately, all these efforts depend on getting the right employee to the right job and filling the lost openings in local industries.