THE CITY OF ROCKFORD, IL, is located 90 miles northwest of Chicago. It has a long, proud history of making machine tools and metal parts, such as nuts and bolts. In the past, the city was known as the “screw capital of the world.” In recent years, however, the region has reinvented itself as an important hub for aerospace manufacturing.

Some of Rockford’s leading employers today are companies such as GE Aviation, UTC and Woodward Inc. The region is also home to scores of smaller fi rms that play a key role in the aerospace supply chain, such as Ingenium Aerospace, Kaney Aerospace and Superior Joining Technologies Inc.

Those small companies produce a variety of parts for big aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, Embraer and Gulfstream. They excel at fabricating metal components and producing items ranging from gears and water tanks to actuation systems and electric power generation systems. In fact, local firms engineer parts for everything from commercial jetliners to military helicopters.

Rockford-made parts can also be found in outer space on the Mars Curiosity Rover and Space-X rockets. And, when the Giant Magellan Telescope becomes operational later this decade, it will feature an optical support structure locally made by Ingersoll Machine Tools Inc.

The future success of Rockford’s aerospace industry depends on nurturing a talented workforce. However, finding, training and retaining employees is a big challenge for many local companies. That issue is being tackled by Rock Valley College.

“[We are] aggressively working with business and industry partners to provide traditional programming and customized training that meets the real time needs of the manufacturing community we serve,” says Chris Lewis, vice president of workforce development at Rock Valley College (RVC). “[We also ] assisted with the commissioning of the Middle Skills Report, which helped to identify industry needs and skills gaps for our region.”

RVC recently created a mechatronics program to address the immediate needs of local aerospace manufacturers. It covers subjects such as electrical systems, mechanical systems and robotics.

“The program has a broad range of industry application for its graduates,” explains Vicki Brust, RVC’s mechatronics coordinator. “This career area is in high demand in our manufacturing region. The emphasis of the program is to develop workforce talent locally to meet recent advancements in manufacturing and automation.

“This need for mechatronics technicians covers a wide range of applications,” adds Brust. “Students graduating from the program will have [learned about] bar code scanners, vision systems and sensors. [In the future, we will] continue offering courses to train students in advanced robotics and automation.”

In addition, RVC’s Business & Professional Institute works closely with local aerospace manufacturers to provide customized contract training. On-site education covers topics such as AS9100, AS9136, AS9146, geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.

RVC also runs the Woodward Technology Center, a technical education laboratory that is operated in conjunction with Northern Illinois University. It offers students opportunities for hands-on learning at local companies such as UTC and Woodward.

A new advanced technology center is currently in the planning stages. The goal is to focus on future regional workforce needs and supply a pipeline of skilled workers to support both aerospace industry giants and local players alike.

The state-of-the-art facility will be located in downtown Rockford. Several sites are being considered, including the former headquarters of the Rockford Register Star newspaper and an abandoned factory complex that once housed Barber-Colman Co., a locally-based manufacturer of textile and milling machinery.