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Boomers leave void

Manufacturing jobs open up, but many lack right skills

STERLING – Looking for a higher-paying job? Manufacturing may be the way to go.

In 2012, the average earnings per manufacturing employee was $54,332 in the counties of Whiteside, Lee, Ogle, Carroll and Stephenson, according to a new study by Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies.

Those earnings are higher than jobs in government ($46,480) and services ($27,888).

What’s more is that manufacturing jobs are opening up, with the retirement of baby boomers.

The catch: Many people may not have the right skills.

The regional manufacturing sector has declined steadily over the last few decades and is expected to continue to do so over the next decade.

At the same time, nearly 400 jobs in the region should open up each year in production, transportation and material moving. Most of the vacancies are because of retirements.

This trend is expected to increase competition among employers for the limited pool of younger, skilled workers in the five-county region and surrounding metro areas. The metro areas will have a competitive advantage because they offer more jobs and higher wages, according to the study.

‘Machines are more complicated’

Another hurdle is that workers in the region generally have less education. The share of people with bachelor’s degrees or higher regionally is nearly half of the state and national averages and has declined steadily over the last two decades.

In 2010, 11.6 percent of the region’s residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher, down from 16.2 percent in 1990.

“Today, the skill set in manufacturing is considerably higher than it might have been 10 years ago,” said John Gvozdjak, president of Sterling’s Frantz Manufacturing Co., which makes parts for conveyor systems. “The machines are more complicated. Consequently, that means more education to operate machinery, which makes it difficult to find qualified candidates.”

The region’s most valuable asset, the study said, is its long history of innovation and manufacturing expertise. Although many factories have closed or moved away, it said, a significant number of small machine shops and manufacturing operations remain.

According to the Center for Governmental Studies, the percentage of value added produced by manufacturing in the region during the past decade surpassed both the United States and Illinois.

The decline in employment, the study said, may partly reflect the region’s productivity increases.

Wanted: ‘Advanced manufacturing skill sets’

The study listed a number of goals for improving the region’s economy. The top one was to develop a competitive workforce with up-to-date skills.

Among the study’s recommendations: Form alliances between employers and educational institutions to plan programs, regularly evaluate workforce concerns by local businesses and assess their expected employee needs in the next 3 to 5 years; create and publicize incentives to attract and retain young professionals.

The study also suggested the region take advantage of the growth of the aerospace industry in the Rockford area. It noted Woodward’s planned expansion in Loves Park.

Unfortunately, many of the people who lost their jobs in the recession lack the skills necessary for the advanced manufacturing jobs, said Norman Walzer, an author of the study.

“People need advanced manufacturing skill sets, coming in with some technical training,” said Walzer, a senior research scholar with the Center for Governmental Studies. “It’s not unusual to start at $40,000 to $50,000 with such backgrounds. It’s not so much that they have a degree, but that they have a set of courses where they learn certain skills.”

Frantz Manufacturing, Gvozdjak said, has a “very seasoned” workforce.

“These are folks who know how to operate the machines,” he said.

The company is hiring interns from Sauk Valley Community College, who ultimately could replace retiring employees, Gvozdjak said.

“We just experienced a retirement of a person who had over 30 years of experience in our company. That’s a loss that’s hard to replace. We are making attempts to deal with that.”

A look at workforce

Here's the makeup of the workforce in the five-county region of Whiteside, Lee, Carroll, Ogle and Stephenson since 1970:

Year Manufacturing Services Government

1970 28.9% 16.5% 15.2%

1980 27.0% 19.0% 13.3%

1990 23.4% 26.7% 12.9%

2000 21.5% 28.8% 12.3%

2010 13.5% 32.0% 13.6%

Source: Woods & Poole Economics Inc.

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