Partnerships forming in Sauk Valley to address worker gaps

Community leaders collaborate to address worker needs, provide incentives

Job demand is high across many industries: Manufacturing, retail, healthcare, education, banking and restaurants.

But, business and community leaders are exploring partnerships with other organizations to help bolster workforce numbers.

The chamber and BEST Inc. hosted a drive-thru job fair in August, when there were somewhere between 450 and 600 job openings. The number of unfilled positions has not changed much, even after the $300 extended unemployment benefits expired in September.

“It’s all over the place,” said Kris Noble, executive director of the Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Everybody is hiring. From entry level to mid-level management to CEOs to everything in between,” she said.

Welcome Home Campaign

One initiative looking to bolster local population numbers is the Welcome Home Campaign, a partnership with the Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, Sterling Main Street, Sauk Valley Community College, Sterling Schools Foundation and the Whiteside Area Career Center Digital Media Arts Class.

The goal of the project is to reach out to those with ties to the community who have moved away and promote the Sauk Valley as a place to come back and raise a family through an online newsletter and marketing campaign.

There are many reasons for people to come back to the area, including a low cost of living and high quality of life with a rural America feel, Noble said.

Pathway programs

Another project is the pathway program in the high schools, which provides a workshop showing students different positions at a workplace such as a bank or other business.

“It won’t solve the problem tomorrow, but it’s a way to reach out to high school kids and allow them to explore different career pathways,” Noble said.

Employee incentives

During a recent regional manufacturing roundtable, Noble said there were several incentives employers were doing including giving workers benefits on the first day, creating flexible schedules and awarding sign-on bonuses.

“We’re at a time like no other,” Noble said. “We know it’s a tough time right now, but we think there are great possibilities out there. I think as a community, we want to be solution-focused and do all we can to help get potential employees back in the workforce.”

Businesses, municipalities, community organizations, schools and economic development groups are collaborating on ways to address a variety of workforce issues such as job-specific education, child care needs and finding available housing.

Employers are more willing to have conversations with employees and be flexible with their needs depending on the position.

SVCC’s Extended Internships

Sauk Valley Community College has been a longtime community partner with educating, training and transitioning students into the workforce.

One initiative is Sauk’s Multicraft Extended Internship Program, which allows students to get work experience and get paid while earning their 2 year applied associates degree in the Multicraft Technology Program. The partnership includes 17 area manufacturers.

Trying to address a skills gap in the area and funneling qualified workers into the manufacturing sector has been a goal for many years throughout the Sauk Valley, and it’s becoming more challenging in the wake of COVID-19.

“Workforce challenges have been, and remain one the biggest challenges facing employers in Northwest Illinois, and if the region’s manufacturers are to remain competitive this problem needs to be addressed,” Whiteside County Economic Development Director Gary Camarano said. “With a generation filled with skills entering retirement, an outflow of talented young students and workers, and the ever-present skills gap, our region’s manufacturing industry is witnessing a labor shortage that may continue into the year 2025 and beyond.”

Senior Design Project

A new project recently announced to help local manufacturers is the Senior Design Project, a partnership where Northern Illinois University’s School of Engineering students work with an employer creating or improving commercial products or industrial processes through engineering design.

It also involves the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center, Sauk Valley Community College and Whiteside County Economic Development. One project will be with Bonnell Industries in Dixon.

“The Senior Design Project is a great resource for a company our size,” company President Joe Bonnell said. “The team will work with us in developing an innovative product that will provide a solution for our customers, and position Bonnell to better meet the competitive environment we are in. This also gives us a look at promising talent that could become part of the Bonnell team in the future.”

Sauk Valley unemployment

The worker shortage remains a concern throughout the area, but unemployment numbers are showing improvement.

In September, Whiteside County’s unemployment rate dropped to 4% compared with 6.5% a year ago. The total workforce was 27,528 compared to 27,918 in September 2020, and the number of unemployed people decreased from 1,811 to 1,093, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

In Lee County, the September unemployment rate fell from 5.6% in 2020 to 3.8%, with the total workforce shrinking from 17,481 to 17,009 and the number of unemployed dropping from 973 to 646.

The rate decreased from 6.3% to 4.8% across the year in Ogle County and from 5.1% to 3.3% in Carroll County.

The highest unemployment rates took place between March and April 2020 during the pandemic lockdown. Whiteside County went from 3.8% to 16.3% during that time, from 1,059 unemployed individuals to 4,342. It took until August 2020 for the rate to drop below 10%

Lee County went from 3.5% to 13.1% at that time, going from 596 unemployed to 2,134.

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers joined Sauk Valley Media in 2016 covering local government in Dixon and Lee County.