ROCKFORD - For decades, Rockford's manufacturing industry has driven the regional economy. There have been struggles that may not have anything to do with finding business.
While companies gathered to celebrate their successes recently, they also focused on the future.
"Manufacturing is part of the heart of our community," said the Rockford Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Rick Zumwalt. "It's part of our history. It's part of our future."
It's for that reason the Rockford Chamber of Commerce holds its annual Manufacturing Dinner and Expo to celebrate the past, but also showcase how important the industry is to the region's economy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 30,000 jobs in the Rockford metro area are linked to manufacturing, that's about one in five of the non-farm workforce.
"This is a chance to... highlight some of that and to highlight the leaders in that community, so the entire community can see manufacturing as the important piece of the community that it is."
Those jobs are at places like Rockford's Bourne & Koch, making machine tools since 1975.
"Right now, in manufacturing, there's definitely a big need for engineers," said Joe Goral of Bourne & Koch. "We see that there's a bit of an issue with finding and retaining good engineers. I know that's backed up by a lot of other companies that I talk to. Manufacturing as a whole, there's a big skills gap there."
Ultrasonic Power Corp. has been around sine 1972. The Freeport-based company uses sound frequencies through the water to clean things on a microscopic scale.
"You can put anything that you can think of," said Ultrasonic Design Engineer Jason Walrath.
Ultrasonic and Bourne & Koch are examples of the many small businesses that serve as a backbone for jobs in the region. While the industry gains strengths here and across the country, companies say they're concerned about the future as the current workforce retires.
"You have kids that are graduating from high school or from college that aren't coming in to manufacturing like they did in the 50s, 60s, and 70s," said Walrath. "Their parents are are telling them those jobs are going overseas and you don't want to go into manufacturing. But, now actually there's a shortage of manufacturers, and with that skilled workforce that pretty soon in the next 5 or 10 years these people that are 55, 65 are going to be gone and there aren't the 20 - 30 somethings to come in there."
These businesses say they take a pro-active approach by supporting programs that supply and train that workforce. They're run by organizations like Rock Valley College and Northern Illinois University. They call it a way to invest in the future of manufacturing.
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