JiET A: building an aerospace pipeline in Rockford

May 28, 2012

A group of Rockford-area educators and business-people think they have an answer to one of the region’s employment problems: they’ve developed a path to take talented students all the way from high school to careers in the aerospace industry.

There are more than 200 aerospace-related companies in the Rockford region. And many of them need engineers. Lots of engineers. Tim Gillis is director of Engineering at Hamilton Sundstrand. He says in the midst of the recession, his company’s workload is at an all time high. They’ve been hiring engineers every year. And with 30% of their employees over the age of 54, it’s time to get serious about replenishing their workforce. He says on one hand, Hamilton Sundstrand has seen impressive growth. On the other hand, there’s a chronic shortage of talented engineers.

Jeff Kaney of Kaney Aerospace says the group he chairs, the Rockford Area Aerospace Network, identified one of the reasons for that: he says it’s difficult to get talented employees to commit to staying in the region. The solution? Grow your own talent. And that’s what’s behind the creation of The Joint Institute of Engineering and Technology – Aerospace. “JiET A” – pronounce it “Jet A” because the “i” is silent. The acronym delights Ken Dufour, who is on the Board of Trustees for Embry-Riddle, an aeronautical university that offers classes in Rockford. Jet A is jet fuel. And like jet fuel, Dufour says JiET A is going to make things move fast.

So JiET A is a pipeline: area students with specific talents and goals can enter while still in high school, coming out the other end with a degree and a career with a local aerospace company. Janyce Fadden is president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. She says these students will be mentored throughout their challenging education path in engineering, math, and science.

   Northern Illinois University, Rockford College, Rock Valley College, and Embry-Riddle make up the higher education component of JiET A. Promod Vohra is dean of the College of Engineering at NIU. He says the programs making up the Joint institute of Engineering and Technology Aerospace are nothing new, but it’s a “unified vision toward a strategic vision.”

So the journey goes something like this for a student, according to NIU’s Rena Cotsones, who’s in charge of regional engagement: students transition from the last few years of high school into NIU or Rock Valley College  or another partner, then graduate. From there, they intern with a local aerospace company, which will hopefully lead to a job.

Cotsones says they’re hoping for about 50 students a year to start. Among the aerospace companies offering internships: Hamilton Sudnstrand, GE Aviation, Woodward, and Jeff Kaney’s company, Kaney Aerospace. Kaney says JiET A is good for the students, good for the companies, and good for the future of the region. He says providing existing employers with a strong workforce will also help attract new employers.

Rockford-area school districts and city governments such as Rockford and Loves Park have joined in on the JiET A collaboration. Plus, the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois and the Rockford Chamber of Commerce plan to support it through student scholarships.