With JiET-A Program Rockford Region Seeks To Keep Top Aerospace Talent at Home

 - August 4, 2013, 2:15 AM
Mitch Semple, a manufacturing engineer at United Technologies Aerospace Systems, credits his participation in the JiET-A program with helping him land a full-time job at the company after graduation.

Think of a city considered an aerospace manufacturing hub: Seattle, Toulouse, Wichita, São Jose dos Campos and Montreal all come to mind.

How about Rockford, Illinois?

Located 90 miles west of Chicago, the Rockford region is the ninth largest epicenter of aerospace activity in the country and the sixth largest as measured by concentration of aerospace employment. More than 200 aerospace suppliers employing 6,500 people have operations in the greater Rockford area and it is home to facilities of several tier-one suppliers, including B/E Aerospace, GE Aviation, Esterline, United Technologies Aerospace Systems (UTAS, formerly Hamilton Sundstrand) and Woodward.

With all of this activity, it is paramount that employers have access to a constant stream of talent across all sectors of the workforce, from the factory floor to the boardroom. Rockford needed to find a way to keep new talent flowing into its aerospace pipeline from nearby universities as well as local high and technical schools. It was also interested in creating incentives for graduates of Rockford-area high schools to return and gain aerospace employment in the area after receiving their university educations elsewhere. Rockford does not have a local engineering school.

So in 2011 the Rockford Area Economic Development Council’s (RAEDC) Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN) created the Joint Institute of Engineering and Technology-Aerospace (JiET-A) program.

The goal of the program is to boost the flow into the region’s aerospace talent pipeline. JiET-A combines three components: academics, mentorships and scholarships. The internship program is offered at Rockford-area schools such as Northern Illinois University, Rock Valley College, Rockford University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The goal is that JiET-A students will bring their skills and experience into the aerospace workforce after they graduate. Although a relatively new program, JiET-A has already attracted 107 college student applications and accepted 48 students. Of that number, 20 are interning at local companies through JiET-A and two students have been hired for full-time employment by UTAS.

As an offshoot of this effort, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is partnering with Rockford Public Schools to establish an aerospace institute that will launch this fall as part of Rockford’s charter school program. The program is offered free to high-school students, enabling them to earn both high-school credit toward graduation and college credit. Initially, the new Rockford institute will offer two courses covering principles of aeronautical science and unmanned aircraft systems. The goal is to encourage high-school students to pursue aerospace engineering majors, acquire a mentor from a participating company, and then apply for JiET-A once they get to college.

The RAEDC also tried to get Embry-Riddle to set up an engineering program in Rockford but those plans were temporarily iced by the recession. However, Embry-Riddle has received approval from the Illinois Board of Education to begin teaching individual master’s level engineering courses at its Rockford campus, but has yet to start teaching the classes.

Essential Recruiting Tool

“We began the program after having discussions about engineering needs with the area’s two largest aerospace employers, UTAS and Woodward,” said Eric Voyles, vice president of national business development for the RAEDC.

“There were multiple programs here in town designed to create engineers and keep them, but they were not aligned. We really weren’t doing a good job of keeping students here in the market. Conversations were not occurring between the high schools and the colleges. So we wanted to get the word out that as the kids moved up on the education ladder there was an opportunity to come back into town and be employed by these companies and others of various sizes.

“We also needed to make more companies aware of the program. As soon as they see it they start to ask how they can adapt it to their co-op programs so they can get these students to come into the company throughout the year, not just in the summer months. It’s an integrated internship program. So the companies had to rethink how to use student employment to develop that future engineer they may want to hire full-time after university.”

Voyles said that area aerospace companies must aggressively recruit engineering talent “just to maintain the status-quo,” and that a program like JiET-A is essential in doing so.

“We needed to create a crop of local engineers, and the key to that was to start talking about it with these kids while they are still in high school, so that they want to come back into the market after college. We needed to create a route back with an attachment to the community.”

So far the program has exceeded expectations, Voyles said. “When we first started, we thought maybe we would have 25 kids and maybe eight to 12 internships by this time. We thought it would take three to four years to build a pipeline of maybe 300 kids in the program. We’re a third of the way there after only one year of effort.” Interns are currently placed at UTAS, B/E and Woodward. Nine other companies are currently seeking interns under the program. Voyles said that more companies are interested in participating. “It’s just a question of getting the word out.”

UTAS engineering executive Bill Kroll has served as the executive director of JiET-A since November 2011. Kroll said JiET-A is working closely with the area’s educational institutions, from high schools to universities, to provide Rockford-area aerospace companies with a variety of qualified graduates, from certified assemblers to post-graduate engineers. Right now its primary focus is on college-track students. Kroll said JiET-A intends to provide 45 internships at 12 companies next year.

UTAS has hired two JiET-A graduates as full-time employees. Both are graduates of Northern Illinois University. One of them is Mitch Semple, a mechanical engineer, who now works as a manufacturing engineer there.

Semple did three co-op sessions with UTAS from 2011 to 2012 before being selected for the JiET-A program. Semple credits JiET-A with helping him land his full-time job a month before he graduated.

Kroll said JiET-A makes sense for participating companies who “want to take control of their workforce needs and build them locally.”