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Study shines light on area counties

Scholar: Manufacturing academy, small business development center needed

Norman Walzer
Norman Walzer

MILLEDGEVILLE – Encouraging your children to go into manufacturing might be a good idea, according to a scholar with Northern Illinois University who presented a study Feb. 28 to Blackhawk Hills Regional Council.

Norman Walzer, senior research scholar with NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, presented a regional strategic action plan at Blackhawk Hills’ Regional Comprehensive Development Strategy meeting at Milledgeville State Bank. The study compared the competitiveness of wages and benefits in Lee, Whiteside, Ogle, Carroll, and Stephenson counties, and also measured the unemployment and underemployment in the area.

Although few people would encourage their children to go into manufacturing, many high-tech manufacturing jobs pay $75,000-plus in some cases as a starting salary, Walzer said.

Those jobs include computer system design jobs or positions in which someone is operating an entire assembly line, which requires advanced skills such as math, he said.

“That’s why employment is dropping, because they’re using machines to do jobs,” he said.

Many manufacturing workers who have been laid off must be retrained because they are unable to find other jobs in advanced manufacturing, which requires different skills, he said.

Of the 9,500 unemployed in the area, 53 percent have experience in manufacturing, the results said. Of the area’s 10,000 who identified themselves as underemployed, 14 percent have primary skills in manufacturing and 28 percent expressed an interest in a skills upgrade, the study found.

The action plan includes five goals for the region, one of which is to develop a competitive and highly productive workforce with up-to-date skills.

To that end, the study calls for a regionwide academy for manufacturing and technology in conjunction with regional career centers.

The study’s third goal is creating an entrepreneurial region with a climate that supports new business formation and encourages existing businesses to invest and prosper. For that purpose, the study states a need for a regionwide, full-time staffed small business development and entrepreneurial assistance organization.

“What we’re suggesting is not the 1970s small business development center with someone sitting in a basement waiting for businesses to come to them,” Walzer said.

The staff would be out and talking to high schools and community colleges to get them thinking about business concepts, he said.

Such a center would be beneficial to the Sauk Valley area because three of the counties in the study have fewer business startups than the average non-metropolitan area in the state: 1.74 businesses per 1,000 people between the years 2004 and 2007. The rate for rural areas in Illinois is even lower than the rates for non-metropolitan areas in Iowa (2.81) and Wisconsin (3.12).

“There should be someone not far away that a person wanting to start a business can call and say, ‘I want to start a business’ and get information about financing and other assistance,” Walzer said.

Jason Anderson is Rochelle’s economic development director. 

He recently learned that the region must get the word out to businesses about the resources it has to offer them if they expand here, he said. Three members from the Chicago office of Korean Trade and Promotion Agency [or KOTRA] visited Rochelle last week and were “flabbergasted” that there was so much industrial infrastructure in a rural setting, he said.

“We have some work to do on an educational standpoint with people looking to expand,” he said. 

Five goals for the region

Northwest Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies surveyed the area’s business to measure the competitiveness of area wages and benefits, and to judge the extent of unemployment and underemployment in the area. The study’s results were presented at Blackhawk Hills Regional Council’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy meeting Thursday.

The study focused on Lee, Whiteside, Ogle, Carroll, and Stephenson counties.

The study presented five major goals for the region:

1. Develop a competitive and highly productive workforce with up-to-date skills capable of using the latest technology in production processes.

2. Support existing and emerging growth industries such as, but not limited to, transportation and aerospace component manufacturing to become a major Midwestern production/assembly region.

3. Create an entrepreneurial region with a climate that supports new business formation and encourages existing businesses to invest and prosper.

4. Make better use of local (regional) inputs and specialties to develop a highly profitable agribusiness and food processing region integrated into Midwestern markets.

5. Leverage and market existing regional assets to encourage growth, enhance the quality of life and maximize the potential of the region.

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