Postcard from Sterling: Closing the gap between the education system and employers

Posted on July 19, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series as Advance Illinois travels the state during its 10th anniversary year. Read the previous installment of the series, from North Chicago, here.

By Bob Dolgan
Communications Director
Advance Illinois 

Jake Knapp was just out of high school when he started his job assembling hair clippers and trimmers at Wahl Clipper Corporation in Sterling. Eighteen years later, he is returning to school and gaining critical new skills thanks to an apprenticeship program through his employer.   

Jake Knapp

“I had thought about going back to school,” said Knapp, a 37-year-old Rock Falls resident. “But once you’re out of that phase and have a family and a fulltime job, it’s hard to do that.” 

Advance Illinois visited 30 Illinois communities in the past several months as part of a Listening Tour to inform our 10th anniversary agenda and to chronicle the pressing education issues facing the state. In talking to more than 400 people and collecting at least 1,400 data points, we heard repeatedly that there are jobs available in the state but that there are too few qualified candidates to fill them. The reasons for the gap range from a lack of math skills to a lack of technical skills and soft skills. Wahl Clipper, a growing company that employs close to 1,200, has about 60 openings for assembly line operators, machinists and more—fulltime jobs with benefits. 

“We have good jobs, well-paying jobs, and can’t get quality candidates to fill them,” said Deana Jones, who oversees manufacturing hiring at Wahl Clipper. “We expect basic computer knowledge coming into the door. It’s not people being mindless robots by any stretch of the imagination.” 

Wahl Clipper headquarters in Sterling

When we visited Sterling, in the scenic and vibrant Sauk Valley region, we heard about a number of efforts under way to improve coordination among business, community and education partners. One of them is Making Opportunities Real for Everyone (MORE) in the Rock and Mississippi Valley Regions, part of the Illinois 60 by 25 Network, which includes Advance Illinois as a network organizer. And employers like Wahl are taking steps to grow their own talent, too. Wahl Clipper has had an open tool-and-die job for almost two years. That’s where the apprenticeship program comes in, which covers education costs and enables employees to take time out of their work day for classes. Knapp’s story inspired one of the many themes in Advance Illinois’ new 10-year agenda, which will be formally announced at a luncheon on Dec. 3. 

“It is really a two-pronged approach, in getting the skill level in the classroom and the hands-on day-to-day work in the tool room,” Jones said. “We’re bringing guys in here, giving them an education so they can get a journeyman’s card that will be portable.” 

Knapp is taking courses at Sauk Valley Community College and is on track to fill a higher-paying and more technical tool-and-die job in the next three years. Wahl’s program and efforts like MORE could help to close the gap between Illinois’ business sector and its education system.  

“I love my job now,” said Knapp, father to a 14-year-old daughter. “I used to dread coming in day to day. Now I’m coming in doing something different every day, and it’s actually fun.” 

Contact Bob Dolgan at or 312-734-1446.