The Rockford Jobs War

What are the challenges and opportunities that our community has in attracting top talent to the area?  Don Schreiner (Rockford Orthopedic Associates), Kristin Williams (Woodward), and I (workplace: Professional and Executive Search) tackled this subject at our most recent Next Rockford membership meeting.  Below is a summary of our thoughts.


The Global Jobs War

1. The whole world yearns for good jobs.  Jim Clifton, Chairman of the Gallup Organization, paints a picture of the importance of having good jobs in his book The Coming Jobs War:

From all Gallup’s data, which have been gathered from asking the whole world questions on virtually everything, the most profound finding is this: The primary will of the world is no longer about peace or freedom or even democracy; it is not about having a family, and it is neither about God nor about owning a home or land.  The will of the world is first and foremost to have a good job.  Everything else comes after that.  A good job is a social value.  That is a huge sociological shift for humankind.  It changes everything about how people lead countries, cities, and organizations.

2. What are the most important qualities of a good job?  A. Purpose: the rising generation has set the stage for the world, and what we care most about is being part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to find meaningful employment that plugs us into a greater purpose.  B. Passion: People want to be passionate about what they do.  We spend 1/3 of our lives at work; we need passion to fuel our success.  C. Innovation: People are attracted to organizations that are different, cutting edge, and leaders in their industry, both community- and world-wide.

3.  There is a great disconnect between the current talent pool and the skills needed for today’s most lucrative jobs.  As jobs have become more complex, more and more specializations have emerged.  There used to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  Now there are early childhood, middle school, and high school teachers with endorsements in math, science, etc.  Likewise with engineers: mechanical, electrical, wind turbine, quality, design—the list goes on.  Specializations have helped fuel innovation at the cost of job seekers becoming less marketable and organizations becoming less flexible.  On-the-job training, especially for professional-level employees, has also seen a decline due to increased job-hopping and reduced employment loyalty.  Finally, both the hard skills and soft skills that are necessary to compete in the 21st century are vastly different than those needed in the 20th century, and the world has had difficulty adjusting to these rapidly changing demands.

4. Communities and organizations that win the talent war brand themselves based on 21st -century values.  Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, says: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  If we want to attract the best talent to our organizations and our community, we have to stop talking about all the end results of the community and the jobs we have to offer.  We have to tell the “why” of our story.  “We want to be the destination for aerospace,” “we want to provide the best possible health care,” “we want to help people discover lives of meaning and purpose through their work.”


Challenges of Recruiting Top Talent to Rockford

1.  Location matters.  We are a big small town located in northern Illinois.  Some people have no interest in moving to the Midwest and no interest in living and working in a town of our size.  We can’t change certain things about our city.  We shouldn’t apologize for what our location offers and shouldn’t waste our time with talent that is not interested in our location.

2. We have an identity crisis. If you are a tech start-up, then the place to be is the Silicon Valley.  If you are into government policy, D.C. is your spot.  For the auto industry, Detroit.  At different points in Rockford’s history we have had a strong anchor identity, primarily based on manufacturing—tool and die, furniture, and the fastener industry, to name a few.  While there have been great strides to create a new aerospace identity, we still lack a strong identity that will allow us to cherry-pick the very best talent within a particular field and bring their talented spouses with them to help lead other industries.

3. We as a community have a very low jobs self-esteem.  Many believe we lack the “good jobs” referenced above.  We are perceived as a jobs-starved, dying manufacturing community.  But did you know that people in the Rockford area made the gears for the rover that landed on mars?  Did you know that we have a high-tech software development company that provides training compliance programs for the major airlines?  Did you know that we have a global department of defense logistics company headquartered in downtown Rockford?  Our jobs branding is antiquated, and our self-perception as an industrial community needs a serious makeover.

4. Every employer can probably tell a story of a time when issues with a spouse became a barrier to top talent moving to Rockford.  Once an employer has wooed a prospective employee, there are several family barriers to overcome.  First, if the spouse plans to work, can he or she find a good and cool job in Rockford?  Second, the spouse is often the one surfing the Internet, and inevitably, high crime and poor public education are hits one and two on the Google search results.  While our public school district has never been better, it will take a sustained effort to turn this perception.  Rockford area employers often cite a low cost of living as a benefit to moving to Rockford, but employers often have to compensate at a higher rate to accommodate top talents’ request to live in a more costly area of town to avoid crime and send their children to a private school.


How to Win the Rockford Jobs War

1.  Winning the 21st-century jobs war requires a highly targeted, personalized approach.  We have to be intentional about creating organizations and a community that addresses the needs of top talent.  We need to make meaningful connections with the people we are trying to recruit to the area.  That requires building strong relationships and developing a talent pool pipeline.  This is where a skilled recruiter or HR professional can really make a difference on the front lines.  I chose to come to Rockford because someone sought me out, showed me the vision, and invited me to be part of something great.

2. We must improve our brand.  Start with your organization.  How can you position your organization and the jobs that you are recruiting for as “good jobs”? The Rockford Public Schools have totally revamped their brand with the Readiness Rocks program, which is starting to have a direct impact on their ability to recruit the best talent available.  Next, how can we improve the brand of our community?  Visit www.OurCityOurStory.com and www.exhilaraterockford.com for two examples of general community branding.  The Next Rockford business attraction team is working on additional ways of branding our community to talent outside Rockford, and we would love your feedback on how to do this well.

3. We must concentrate on the low-hanging fruit, people with a family connection to Rockford.  You can have a major impact with three simple steps.  First, be a personal connector to friends and family who are interested in coming back to Rockford.  Second, when you speak to a group of middle school, high school, or college students, tell them we value their talent and that we want them to stay or return to Rockford.  Tell them as a group, tell them individually—and don’t take “no” for an answer.  Third, connect with as many former Rockfordians as you can find on LinkedIn.  Then post, like, or re-post all of the great things happening in the Rockford jobs market and advocate that they apply for jobs that would be of interest to them.

4. Close the deal with the best candidates.  The Next Rockford business attraction team has partnered with Rockford Orthopedic to create a personalized recruitment tool that has experienced great success.  When a new physician or PA is in the final stages of considering a job offer that will relocate them to Rockford, he or she is given a personalized tour, by a Next Rockford member, that highlights the great quality of life in our community.  We’d love to expand on this service.  If you have ideas of things to showcase on these tours let us know.  Better yet, if you are recruiting someone from outside our region, let us help you by giving your next hire a great tour.

All of these suggestions are just the beginning, and they take effort, but success in a global jobs war isn’t going to come easily.  Let’s show everybody what Rockford jobs have to offer.


1 Comment

  1. The Rockford Jobs War can’t be fought without jobs to talk about first. They’re gone. All gone. The first battle to be won–if any–is for the community’s leaders and people to wake up, learn how to do a little math, think logically, stop pretending things are on the up. They’re not.

    The city of Rockford and many of it’s leaders are playing games, emotional marketing political games. Branding –games, politico grass roots agendas looking to dip into economic lobbying–like OurCityOurStory.com and ExhilarateRockford.com is a waste of money we don’t have and energy that is rarely compensated for at fair market value.

    Which brings us to fair market value on jobs. Rockford’s leaders, business and government, are in a position to protect their own interests first and foremost, and to protect their own jobs while deciding who earns the remaining pennies, and who they’ll beg for free labor from. That is Rockford business at it’s core, and how it has treated young professionals stuck here on smart debts, loans, and other personal investments that used to be considered good debt (education). Rockford’s city leaders and business leaders are dependent on “Volunteerism”. They have forgotten how to lure potential employees with MONEY for labor, benefits if available.

    There is now a young generation that has no idea what it means to work for a 40 hour a week paycheck with health insurance incentives. Ask them, talk to them. We can’t make use of our own talent pool, how can we attract others to come here for jobs that do not exist?

    The first step–and I’ve been preaching this for 15 years since moving back to this corrupt, inept and unethical city–is to educate the business owners first. Start there; and while we’re at it, force everyone in tax-payer paid for positions of power and leadership to take ethics courses once a year along with college level math and economics courses. Fire those who fail right off the bat. No ifs ands or butts. The amount of jobs that will be created by curing Rockford and other crappy, corrupt Illinois cities from nepotism, would be a decent first step towards rebuilding the health of a run down and barely existent middle class that has been massacred by scumbags in Bergners suits making poor, selfish labor and ethics decisions while often trumping a qualified talent pool in their own community that has been left to create their own work, or move once more.

    There are no quick solutions unless we start curving the behaviors of those in charge of businesses and government first. I have the proof that the poison in in your own water. Learn to respect the workers again, pay them and refrain from begging for short term deals and “volunteerism” bulls%$t–don’t lowball, which is what I’ve seen happen up close from our region’s “best” leaders. Again, I have the proof. The poison is in your own water, clean up the business and government leaders, and you’ll clean up the community.


    Chief Tchad Beale