University Economic Development Association


Award Category: Talent Development
Project Site: Joint Institute for Engineering and Technology- Aerospace (JiET-A)
Submitted By: Northern Illinois University
Contact: Rena Cotsones , 815.753.0834

Case Study


Recognizing the importance of the aerospace industry as a major economic driver, the Rockford Area Aerospace Accelerator Project (RAAAP) was created to accelerate innovation, job creation and global competitiveness in the robust aerospace cluster in Rockford, Illinois. In collaboration with regional aerospace industry leaders, a coalition of higher education, economic development and workforce development professionals developed a regional aerospace growth system focusing on four key goals: product innovation, branding, high-tech and engineering workforce pipeline and entrepreneurship. The group was awarded one of 20 federal Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge (JIAC) grants to support its efforts.

The project is led by Northern Illinois University with the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, Rock Valley [Community] College, EIGERlab (small business incubator/acclerator), and the regional Workforce Investment Board. Private sector members of the Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN) are actively engaged in the project, providing valuable input, helping to facilitate linkages with regional companies and providing critical support of key project elements.

A key innovation arising from the collaborative work of the JIAC grant was the creation of the Joint Institute for Engineering and Technology – Aerospace (JiET-A). This initiative unites higher education providers and local aerospace companies in a joint effort to streamline the academic and career development pathways for local students so that the community is working together to “grow its own” engineering and high-tech workforce.


Aerospace Industry Workforce Shortage
In Rockford, Illinois, the crown jewel of the regional economy is aerospace. One of the aerospace industry’s greatest needs is finding qualified talent during a national shortage of engineers, scientists and technicians while it forecasts more than 30,000 new airplanes to be delivered in the next 20 years.

In order to ensure the long-term vitality of this important sector, a regional approach to workforce development was needed. The Rockford Area Aerospace Accelerator Project (RAAAP) team began by seeking to understand both the workforce needs and the hiring practices of local aerospace companies. A survey determined the current hiring demand as 200 workers per year with about 30% being recent college graduates. The survey and subsequent follow-up calls also uncovered that the large aerospace companies are frustrated by spending more than expected on recruitment costs and small companies have limited capacity (and therefore limited success) in making strategic hires.

The demand for high-tech and engineering talent to support the aerospace cluster is in stark contrast to a number of economic indicators in the Rockford area. Unemployment and high school drop-out rates are higher than state and national averages and educational attainment is low, with only 20% of adults having earned a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared to the national average of 27%. With the knowledge that the leading aerospace companies are headquartered in communities outside of Rockford, the project team understood that addressing the workforce problem for this high-value economic sector was critical to the community’s ability to preserve existing employment levels just as much as it was creating opportunities to expand employment and opportunity. Furthermore, aerospace wages are double the average Rockford-area per capita income, making expansion of this employment base an extremely important opportunity.


In 2010, Northern Illinois University convened a group of local economic development organizations and was the lead agency applying to the first round of the Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge (JIAC), a multi-agency competitive federal grant challenge. The Rockford Area Aerospace Accelerator Project (RAAAP) was awarded $2.4M for the comprehensive collaborative initiative, which created several talent development projects including identification of curriculum needs, scholarships for underrepresented populations, and integrated internships to provide hands-on experience relevant to students’ academic curricula.

The RAAAP partners’ commitment to growing the region’s own aerospace workforce led to the creation of the Joint Institute for Engineering and Technology – Aerospace (JiET-A), an innovative partnership among aerospace businesses, higher education institutions and students. Working with JiET-A leaders and participating regional higher education institutions, students select a starting point and design their career pathway to their chosen aerospace-related destination. Innovative, high-quality internships are integrated with each institution’s academic curriculum so that when students graduate, they enter the aerospace industry with valuable skills and experience.  While many aerospace companies were already operating internship and co-op programs, JiET-A has expanded these opportunities and increased their visibility in the region.

JiET-A unites regional educational institutions and aerospace companies in a combined effort to enhance students’ experiences and guide them to a successful transition from school to the aerospace workforce.  Students attending four local participating colleges and universities have the opportunity to participate in high-quality internships that are integrated into their academic curricula. When the JiET-A students graduate, they will bring valuable skills and experience into the regional aerospace workforce.

Local aerospace companies immediately saw the potential for JiET-A to help reduce their recruitment and retention expenditures and increase effectiveness. The three largest companies immediately expanded the number of internships available and made some of their senior executives available for student mentoring and program coordination activities.

As the project was getting underway, one of the largest aerospace companies in the region was in the final stages of a site selection process for a major expansion. According to company officials, the existence of collaborative regional initiatives for support of the aerospace cluster and high-tech workforce development was a key element in the company’s selection of the Rockford area for expansion.

JiET-A participation
• 126 current students at participating local higher education institutions applied to JiET-A
• 90 students accepted (those who don’t qualify are counseled and redirected)
• 26 students in integrated internships in 6 companies
• Six students already hired by aerospace companies

Future Considerations

The JiET-A Governing Board is made up of committed partners from the public and private sectors who are contributing organizational talent and other resources to ensure the long-term success of JiET-A. A leading local aerospace company has assigned a high-level engineering executive to be the volunteer director of the JiET-A program. Administrative support for the project is provided through EIGERlab, the region’s small business incubator/accelerator.

Demonstrating their commitment to JiET-A, participating aerospace companies agreed to pay a $2/hour fee for all interns to help support the operation of the program. Recognizing the potential for expansion of the JiET-A model, the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois has provided a $50,000 grant for administrative support and the development of a business model that will ensure the long-term viability of JiET-A and propose new clusters for development of a similar model.

Finalist Presentation

UEDA Awards of Excellence Finalists presented at the Annual Summit in Santa Fe on September 29-30, 2014. Summit attendees then voted for the best initiative in each category.