Kankakee County has what a research group described as a “thriving” manufacturing base and the diversity of its companies was also cited as remarkable for a region of this size.

The New York City-based research firm, AdvisorSmith Solutions, Inc., in a just-released report on U.S. manufacturing ranked Kankakee County as being home to the fifth-highest thriving manufacturing bases of communities with populations not greater than 150,000.

“The amount of manufacturing output during the past four years is 16.8 percent, noted report co-author Adrian Mak, CEO of AdvisorSmith. “You’ve had dramatic growth. Your area is doing quite well.”

In fact, some 16 percent of Kankakee County’s workforce — some 7,159 employees — are working jobs which are classified as manufacturing, which is higher than the national average of 13 percent, noted Tim Nugent, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County.

In a region once decimated by an exodus of manufacturers some 40 years ago, it is remarkable to see the regeneration which has taken place.

“I’ve been preaching this story for the last several years. We have a strong manufacturing base. We just make different products here than we once did,” Nugent said. “We lost those old manufacturers, but we still are a manufacturing county. We just make different things now.”

DIVERSITY OF COMPANIES

In addition to its sheer numbers, Mak noted he was very impressed with the diversity of the manufacturing employers which call Kankakee County home.

“What we see most often is a region where there is a dominant type of manufacturing taking place,” he said, noting area which rely heavily on automobiles or bio technology or steel or food or even wine.

“Kankakee County is diverse in the fact that it has many of these,” Mak said. “Most small cities ranked highly in these studies are the typical ‘company towns,’ where you have the one large employer or major industry.”

He noted Kankakee County has bio technology, but also steel production, food production, plastics production and chemical production.

“It’s quite diverse. People should be proud. “Kankakee seems to have figured out — and I don’t know if it was on purpose or accidentally — how to diversify its economy,” he said.

An economy not so reliant on a single type of production is much stronger and can manage the ebbs and flows of production on much firmer footing, he noted.

It is not to say Kankakee County is not without its issues in terms of jobs. The county has a 5.8 percent unemployment rate as of May figures.

ECONOMIC BACKBONE

But according to the AdvisorSmith report, the area has a solid manufacturing backbone.

The report authors noted that the county’s manufacturing output per capita translates to $21,064. The nationwide average is $7,221. Those numbers mean the county’s manufacturing output is nearly three times higher than the national average.

That figure is quite impressive, Mak noted.

He also noted that Kankakee County’s lowest ranking within the four categories was its 44th position in manufacturing employment location quotient. Basically, this category measures the proportion of manufacturing jobs to total jobs in the studied area.

The county scored a 1.9 in this category. The leader in small cities in this category was Elkhart, Ind., with a 5.8. The higher the quotient, the more likely it is that a randomly selected job will be one in manufacturing.

Kankakee County’s job market is dominated by service and medical employers such as government/school and healthcare.

But Mak believes Kankakee’s figure could grow. He noted as more companies explore markets, Kankakee will be looked a favorably, meaning there is potential for more employers as well as manufacturing expansion.

He also noted there is still the common misconception of manufacturing being somewhat lower skilled positions or repetitive work.

“That’s not true. Companies continue to up-skill their workforce. These workers are required to be highly skilled. The most important thing is having a skilled workforce,” he said. “That allows highly complicated products to be produced and that’s what attracts people to come to your community.

“These companies have to keep investing in their people. The areas that attract people are the places that will thrive.”

What Mak and his co-author, Patrick Chen, published couldn’t have been more beautiful to Nugent’s eyes.

“Good things are happening here. Do we want even more? Of course. We are always looking and always talking to companies. But when you see results like this, it bears out the things we have been saying.

“All the good jobs didn’t leave. We are still pumping things out. We may not be making stoves or snowblowers, but we are making product. One thing that is constant is change and some of the changes which have taken place here are good.”

And the telephone in his office keeps ringing with potential opportunities.

Lee Provost, an award-winning reporter, has been writing local news stories for The Daily Journal since 1988. He is a lifelong resident of the region. Provost can be reached at lprovost@daily-journal.com.