Aerospace Grant Partners Share Successful Results


ROCKFORD, Feb. 26 – The three-year federal Jobs & Innovation Accelerator Challenge (JIAC) grant delivered resounding success in the expansion and clout of the Rockford Area Aerospace Cluster — assisting in significant job creation and retention, connecting small- and medium-sized companies to supply chain opportunities and raising the international stature of the cluster.  JIAC grant activities branded the Rockford Region as “Mid-America’s best mid-sized international region for aerospace and aviation companies” and helped change its reputation from “an area with some aerospace companies” to “a center of aerospace excellence” with as many as 250 companies.   

The successful solicitation and implementation of the JIAC grant demonstrated an unprecedented level of civic collaboration among government, education and business.  The JIAC team included representatives of the NIU College of Engineering & Engineering Technology, the NIU Office of Regional Engagement-Rockford, the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, The Rockford Region Economic Development District, Rock Valley College, EIGERlab, and the Winnebago/Boone Workforce Investment Board.  

“We can always do more collaboratively than we can independently,” said Dr. Rena Cotsones, associate vice president for engagement and innovation partnerships at Northern Illinois University.  “The tremendous results achieved with the JIAC grant demonstrate the power of public-private partnerships in economic and workforce development.”

Since the grant program’s inception in 2011, 13 regional aerospace companies announced projects that would create 2,150 jobs and retain 1,756 jobs. This includes the $300 million, 400,000-square-foot expansion by Woodward, a leader in aircraft turbine fuel systems. Company officials have called the Rock Cut campus in Loves Park, which will begin some operations this year, the most modern facility of its type in the world.

Other prominent companies like AAR Corp., GE Aviation, B/E Aerospace and Forest City Gear also announced significant projects in the Rockford Region. And smaller aerospace suppliers reported job growth, revenue growth and export growth as a result of grant activities, including boosts in attendance at international and domestic trade shows, regional supplier symposiums held by major aerospace companies and other events.

Supply chain:
As a direct result of this grant funding, 72 Rockford Region companies participated in over 10 globally recognized tradeshows alongside the State of Illinois, Winnebago County, Greater Rockford Airport Authority and the RAEDC.

Over $7 Million in sales have been reported by companies participating in the State of IL sponsored Paris and Farnborough International Air Shows.

The sheer number and diversity of suppliers in the cluster caused large aerospace companies to take a close look at the Rockford Region for potential investment. For instance, AAR Corp. broke ground in October 2014 on a $40 million, 200,000-square-foot, 24/7 maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility at Chicago Rockford International Airport. Also, Rockford was a top 5 finalist for Boeing’s proposed 777X aircraft assembly plant in 2014.

The cluster has been referenced positively in major national publications such as The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and multiple aerospace industry publications. Expansion Solutions magazine awarded JIAC partner the Rockford Area Economic Development Council a 2012 Award of Excellence – Top Five in Aerospace.

“The JIAC grant has been crucial in positioning and accelerating our region’s capability to support our most successful and high-potential industries. It has elevated, and exposed, businesses from the Rockford Region on to the global stage,” said Carrie Zethmayr, executive director – trade and investment at the RAEDC.

Background on the grant:
In 2012, a collaborative effort led by Northern Illinois University (NIU) received one of only 20 national JIAC grants to help accelerate job creation, global competitiveness and innovation for small and medium-sized aerospace companies in the region. The grant was federally funded in part by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), Department of Labor’s Employment Training Administration (ETA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

The grant created prosperous alignment and acceleration in four major areas: branding, product innovation, workforce pipeline and business entrepreneurship, as depicted in the aerospace growth model below:

Major educational components:
The JIAC partners’ commitment to growing the region’s own aerospace workforce led to the creation of unique academic programs. One such significant program is the Joint Institute for Engineering and Technology – Aerospace (JiET-A), an innovative partnership among aerospace businesses, higher education institutions and students for the advancement of the aerospace industry workforce.

Working with JiET-A leadership and participating colleges/universities in the Rockford Region, students select their starting point and design their career pathway to their chosen professional destination. High-quality internships are integrated with academic curriculum so that when students graduate, they enter the aerospace industry with valuable, and marketable, skills and experience. Program accomplishments include creating a pipeline of nearly 150 aspiring interns with more than 30 employed in integrated internships and 10 students hired thus far.

Another academic program that facilitated success for engineering students is the JIAC Rockford Aerospace Engineering Program. This program expedites a student’s progression from Rock Valley College engineering student to NIU engineering degree student; 62 students have participated in this program.

NIU has successfully placed eight engineering students from its Engineers-In-Residence Program  at four Rockford Area Aerospace Network companies, resulting in accelerated product advancement of high tech materials and control systems. Also the EIGERlab, the region’s business incubator and product development center, assisted 119 companies with prototype fabrication using its 3D additive manufacturing equipment over the past three years.  

Additional results:
EIGERlab licensed the SBA’s Growth Wheel business strategy tool and created three peer-to-peer roundtable groups for the aerospace, advance manufacturing and minority communities; 84 participants have utilized this Growth Wheel process to advance their company.

JIAC has complemented other major federal investments in the Rockford Area. These include a U.S. EDA grant to rebuild roads around Chicago Rockford International Airport and FAA grants to expand the airport, as well as two EDA-funded plans – a Strategic Diversification Plan and a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy – that each identify strategies for further growing aerospace and related high-growth, innovative industries.

The future:
At the close of the grant, the Rockford Area Aerospace Cluster is stronger than ever and well-positioned for further growth. Tools are in place to identify additional member companies and connect them to each other and supply chain opportunities. Economic development officials have a growing international list of aerospace supplier leads for future investment in the region. Efforts by JIAC education and entrepreneurship partners have strengthened the foundations of Cluster workforce and innovation. Partnerships developed through the grant will continue to benefit aerospace companies in the region.

Rena Cotsones, Ph.D.  
Associate Vice President for Engagement and Innovation Partnerships
Northern Illinois University

Carrie Zethmayr
Executive Director – Trade and Investment
Rockford Area Economic Development Council


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