By Lesley Rigg, Interim Vice President for Research and Innovation Partnerships, Northern Illinois University

Innovation clusters are a strong way to drive economic development. Centered on a key industry, clusters bring together companies, technologies, and workforce organizations to create a supply chain of both products and talent.  Universities, like Northern Illinois University, play a vital role in building innovation clusters by training students with industry-driven skills and tapping their research capacity to develop new ideas and improve quality and efficiency.

Rockford, Illinois, is positioning itself as a leading region for aerospace companies seeded by a 2008 NIU Center for Government Studies report. The federal Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge (JIAC) award has helped the Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC) and NIU galvanize the Rockford aerospace community into the Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN) cluster – now with over 200 suppliers – through workforce development, product innovation, high-tech entrepreneurship and branding initiatives.  Cluster development efforts through JIAC have created or retained over 3,300 jobs and driven more than $400 million in private sector expansion.

Building the Engineering and High-Tech Workforce Pipeline 

One of the key needs of any innovation cluster, and aerospace in particular, is an accessible talent pool trained in industry-specific skills and techniques.  The Rockford Joint Institute for Engineering and Technology (JiET-A) aligns educational and industrial assets to help the region effectively “grow its own” engineering and high-tech talent.  This innovative partnership among aerospace businesses and higher education institutions offers students opportunities for internships, counseling and mentorship along their aerospace career pathways.  In the first two years, more than 100 students have demonstrated interest in aerospace careers and are taking courses in Rockford-area higher education institutions. Based on initial success, JiET-A is moving towards sustainability as local companies offset program management costs.

Creating Product Innovation for the Aerospace Supply Chain

NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology provides Engineer in Residence services to small and medium-sized companies, placing faculty-supervised engineering students on-site to serve as research, development, test, and evaluation engineers.  Twelve EIRs have been placed at Rockford-area companies, supporting product and process innovation while also building a career pathway from NIU to Rockford.

Supporting High-Tech Entrepreneurship

The EIGERlab small business incubator is operating peer-to-peer roundtable groups for the aerospace, advanced manufacturing and minority business communities.  The “C” team (commercialization team) regularly meets with startups and Stage One companies to provide expert consultation and support.  Larger regional aerospace companies are actively mentoring smaller companies, resulting in accelerated growth and new supply chain relationships.

Branding the Region as an Aerospace Cluster

The aerospace cluster is gaining international visibility through participation in trade shows around the world.  More than 25 Rockford-area companies have returned from these trade shows with sales leads and orders.  A sustained public relations campaign has garnered significant national media placements in site selection and aerospace industry trade publications as well as major business news publications such as the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business.

Lessons Learned

Five years into the aerospace cluster project, the partners can point to significant progress on many fronts.  RAAN has become a nationally-recognized example of collaboration and has generated meaningful economic outcomes for the region.  Leading aerospace company Woodward referenced the project and the successful implementation of JiET-A as key factors in its recent decision to make a $300 million expansion investment in the Rockford-area.  The cluster has also developed a self-sustaining, federally funded initiative as the community value has been proven.

These are impressive accomplishments by any measure.  Equally important, the project has helped reinforce the role of universities like NIU in regional economic development by furnishing access to experts and facilities that extend far beyond industry capabilities, providing hands-on learning experiences to highlight opportunities for students to move into high-skill, high-wage careers and even convening stakeholders to help them work through the sometimes difficult issues that obscure common goals.

Did You Know?

Cluster development involves many coordinated activities amongst multiple and diverse partners. In addition to providing business services and expertise, clusters facilitate workforce development programs. Educational institutions play a critical part in workforce development by supplying human talent and training facilities.  In partnership with NIU and other educational organizations in the Rockford aerospace cluster, the EIGERlab supports the JiET-A program – an internship workshop for small and mid-sized aerospace companies.  The EIGERlab also runs the TechWorks training program, which has recently added an Assembly class designed specifically for the aerospace cluster companies.  The first cohort will run in the Q2 of 2014.  Together, these programs leverage the combined expertise of local institutions and companies to create a pipeline of specialized human talent that companies need to grow and create additional jobs.

Watch and Listen:

NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology explains how they support cluster development
Rockford Economic Development Council presents the aerospace capacities of the region


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