Transform Rockford: 4 Ways We’re Transforming the Labor Pool

In its pursuit of lasting transformation, this nonprofit is finding success where other institutions are collaborating on workforce development.

Among the volunteers and community leaders plugged into Transform Rockford, there’s a growing focus around efforts that drive major change – and workforce development is a big target.

“It’ll impact the number of jobs, the unemployment rate, the percent of people employed and unemployed, the percent underemployed, the number employed and in poverty, the percent of black students with a high school diploma and many poverty-related metrics,” says Spitty Tata, program manager.

From Rock Valley College (RVC) and The Workforce Connection to Rockford Public Library (RPL), significant work is underway to help people of all stripes seize a better career.

Career Online High School: Consider, for a moment, that an estimated 48,000 people in Winnebago and Boone counties never finished high school. Their job opportunities are often limited. The alternative has always been a GED, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Enter Career Online High School, a self-guided education that yields a diploma and training in one of 10 career fields, including child care, truck driving and hospitality.

Students work at their own pace, and many classes combine core subjects with soft skills like communication, dealing with conflict and good work habits. There’s a dedicated advisor to keep students accountable, but they can also seek out Leon Smith, assistant manager of RPL’s makerspace and the school’s local program director. Smith’s goal is to provide support and reduce the barriers that stand in students’ way.

RPL joined the online high school in 2017, using library funds to pay students’ tuition. With help from business leaders Pete Provenzano and LoRayne Logan, the program now offers full-ride scholarships to every student.
It’s had a transformational impact on families.

“Since they started doing their high school work their kids began working alongside them and their kids’ grades came up, too,” says Smith. “So, it was family time, and the example mom was setting for her kids was making a difference.”

Career Pathways: What’s your ultimate career goal? Some people have never considered the possibilities, yet it’s a growing focus at The Workforce Connection (TWC), a nonprofit organization that serves as our region’s workforce development board.

TWC’s big goal is to connect employers with career-seekers of all ages. Through career counseling, technology services, training and other supports, TWC helps people to acquire the skills and industry-recognized credentials that will land them a career in six high-demand fields: manufacturing, health care and social assistance, construction, logistics, professional and business services, and hospitality/tourism.

It’s not just about finding a job. Establishing a career pathway means educating people on what’s next. Are there additional degrees or certificates that can boost your pay and advance you up the ranks? Are there other fields where your skills are handy?

Rock Valley College (RVC) is ensuring those career pathways are obvious to the next generation, as well. Through its Linking Talent with Opportunity initiative, RVC is aligning curriculum in high school and community college so that students can earn real-world credentials and land a job straight out of school.

Apprenticeships: Another way to advance that career pathway is with apprenticeships, and they’re not only for skilled trades. TWC has established earn-and-learn programs at many local businesses, and it has grant funding and templates to help companies get started.

The big idea is to combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction, typically through RVC. Unlike a traditional college student, they’re earning a living in their field while gaining skills. Their pay typically increases as ther education progresses.

“That individual is going to earn more money because they’re now a more skilled and competitive worker,” says Amanda Sink, board strategic initiatives manager at TWC. “That also benefits the employer. But it also increases the individual’s interest and loyalty with that company.”

Rock Valley College: This school is a vital link because it offers not only associate degrees but also industry certificates and vital training for employment.

Thanks to RVC’s partnership with Northern Illinois University, nearly 280 young engineers are earning an associate in Engineering Science, the transfer degree that allows them to earn a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering without leaving campus.

The tech bus is a mobile classroom that takes services straight to certain populations. Speaking of which, RVC’s Workforce Equity Initiative is using grant funds to train African-American workers in high-priority areas. A job placement specialist is helping to ensure nobody falls through the cracks.

The new Advanced Training Center, scheduled to open in August, will provide hands-on classes on topics such as mechatronics and industrial maintenance. With revolving classes aimed at practical job skills, the ATC promises to be an essential link for local employers, says Chris Lewis, vice president of workforce development at RVC. Open-enrollment classes ensure there are constant business and training opportunities.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to go to work for someone or to work for yourself, we’re providing the resources that are needed to help you get where you need to be in a competitive environment,” says Lewis. “And that will help sustain this region and transform it.”