Manufacturers Tap into New Engineering Talent to Fill Labor Shortage

Finding skilled laborers has been an ongoing challenge for Illinois manufacturers. According to Whiteside County Economic Development (WCED) of Morrison, Illinois, the labor shortage and skills gap is expected to worsen as a boom of skilled manufacturing workers reach retirement age, leaving Illinois manufacturers with an even greater shortage of skilled labor that is expected to continue through 2025 and beyond.

However, the region’s economic development organizations and higher education institutions hope to narrow the gap. A collaboration has formed between NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET), Sauk Valley Community College (SVCC) and WECD to engage teams of senior engineering students to solve real-world challenges that manufacturers are facing.

In the CEET Senior Design Program, students form multi-disciplinary teams of three plus a graduate assistant and a faculty mentor, to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a hands-on learning experience to construct a prototype or process for area manufacturers.

With funding provided by SVCC and WCED, Bonnell Industries of Dixon, Illinois was provided with $5,000 toward the sponsorship of a Senior Design project that will support a special short-term project for the 62-year-old local manufacturer of truck, snow removal, and road maintenance equipment.

Manufacturing Director Ray Ziganto joined CEET to work hand-in-hand with Illinois manufacturers as part of a grant from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in partnership with the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) to seek out small-to-mid-sized Illinois manufacturers needing additional resources to stay competitive. Ziganto’s role is to pair manufacturers with teams of enterprising senior engineering students to solve technology and engineering challenges.

“Through this partnership, that is getting rave reviews from students and manufacturers, companies get solutions to real-world challenges that help grow and improve their businesses,” said Ziganto. “We’re looking to expand the program, and attract more manufacturers.”

Throughout the Senior Design program, teams meet weekly under the mentorship of an industry-experienced faculty member whose role is to keep the teams progressing. In addition, a representative from each of the client companies is invited and encouraged to attend the weekly meetings to answer questions and ensure that the projects are on track to meet the desired objectives.

At the end of the spring semester, the teams exhibit their completed projects in an event that is open to the public called Senior Design Demonstration Day, which will be held on Friday, May 6 from noon to 4 p.m. at the NIU Convocation Center in DeKalb.

“Partnerships like these truly serve to benefit everyone involved and the state as a whole,” said Mansour Tahernezhadi, Ph.D., senior associate dean for CEET. “It’s a win-win situation where students get real-world learning experience, and manufacturers fill the skills gap in the labor force. The outcome is tremendous – a real workable solution to an engineering challenge that the manufacturer is facing.”

The Bonnell Industries team includes students Samual Brown, Kyle Dick, and Jeremy Steegmueller with Teaching Assistant Tyler Vogen and Faculty Advisor Robert Sinko, Ph.D.

For more information visit or contact Ray Ziganto.

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