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A Closer Look at Walorski’s Roundtable in Elkhart

August 29, 2016 by   Leave a Comment

Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski

Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski

The economy, taxes, federal regulations and the area’s labor issues took center stage at a Roundtable discussion last week (Aug. 25) involving 2nd District Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski and a room full of RV and marine executives at Lexington Corp. on the north side of Elkhart, Ind.

The session was part of a swing through the area during which the Republican congresswoman, a former news reporter for South Bend’s WSBT-TV, also toured a number of area businesses in the region including the Clunette Elevator Co. in Kosciusko County, Strauss Veal Feeds in North Manchester, RACO Inc. and a FedEx facility in South Bend. 

Having already posted an Elkhart Truth article on the event last Friday, is taking a closer look at some of the comments made around the conference room table that day in an unusual, pre-election event co-hosted by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).

Underscoring the whole conversation, as the two organization’s pointed out in their joint press release, is the fact that in Indiana’s 2nd District alone, recreational boating supports 1,700 jobs across 76 businesses and contributes $321 million to the district’s economy annually. The 2nd district is also home to 157 RV businesses employing more than 14,200 workers and generating a total economic impact of $4.6 billion.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to represent the RV and boating industries since my days at the Statehouse,” Walorski, part of RVIA’s RV Caucus, said in her opening comments. “All the folks in Congress know that I represent Elkhart County, and most members of Congress would love to represent Elkhart County because of the resiliency of the economy, the entrepreneurs, the get-it-done spirit, the creativity and jobs created, the economic impact – all of those things. And so I really have made it my mission to be able to represent these industries both in the state of Indiana and at the federal level.”

Lexington President Jeff Wysong: “What’s important for us – I’m a supplier to both the RV and the marine industry – is that those guys (manufacturers) can keep moving product. And we have the positive strengths. Obviously, in Elkhart County the biggest problem we have is labor. But we have a great workforce out there… I’m just making sure that the big guys (key RV and marine builders) can keep moving product. That’s what is most important.”

Dicor President Gregg Fore: I received a report this morning as a member of the EDC of Elkhart County that the county’s job creation was No. 1 in the state of Indiana and No. 10 in the country. My concern, as always, is that that’s not sustainable over long periods of time. It’s easy to be a great job creator when you come from behind… So, that’s kind of where we’re at today. Jeff alluded to the labor shortages, which are a result of good business. It’s not a result of a poor workforce. Now, the growth is likely not sustainable but the higher level of attainment probably is. So, I’m pretty happy about that.”

Rep. Jackie Walorski meets with leaders from the Elkhart RV and boating industries (Photo by J. Tyler Klassen)

Rep. Jackie Walorski meets with leaders from the Elkhart RV and boating industries (Photo by J. Tyler Klassen)

Transhield Director of Marketing Mindy McIntire: “We are struggling to find skilled labor. It’s one thing to find bodies, but we need people that are skilled in sewing, and that seems to be a lost art. We’ve collected some numbers on how many skilled sewers there are in this area and the job market potential growth there and the need to offer that as training. We’ve reached out to the Elkhart area Career Center to try to create a school for that training and, as we understand it, there’s nothing in that category for the undergrad. There may be in adult education. But we’re just trying to do anything to try to build our own skilled labor force. So, any help with that would be greatly appreciated.”

Furrion Vice President Mark Lucas: At Furrion, we’re working with the same workforce and the same labor pool as everyone else, so we’ve taken a slightly different approach. And we’re investing in this area (with a new building next to the RV/MH Hall of Fame) because of the skilled workforce. But we also want this to be another hub, another center of the country where we attract talent from the outside. We want to bring (in) people from other major suppliers, other major manufacturers, other industries – not just RV and marine – and actually attract new families to the area, attract pools of people to come in that bring other opportunities along with them.

Right now, we just keep fishing in the same pond. We want to expand that pool. We’re going to invest, and we hope that other companies that are affiliated with us – companies we supply – support that and, again, attract families, new workers. We’re reaching out to the schools as far as three or four hours away – trying to get some internship programs and other things on board. We’ve met with the Elkhart Economic Development Corp. already and others, and they’re very supportive. And so as soon as our new facility is done in the spring, we’re going to start to implement some of those policies and hopefully help with that labor force shortage at all levels.”

Congresswoman Walorski: “Every time I meet with local companies – it doesn’t seem to matter where, the conversation’s the same: It’s this issue about training the next generation of workers and current workers. I was at a manufacturing company this morning in South Bend talking about the exact same thing – St. Joseph County is looking at this issue as well.”

Smoker Craft President and CEO Doug Smoker: We talk about employment and unemployment and that kind of thing here, and we could hire 41 people now if we could find that number of people to come on board. We’ve worked a lot with Purdue in the last two years. We’ve been able to get interns in there, which has worked out really well for us in the summertime, and we’ve had three or four of them latch onto us. And we try to work with the local high schools in both the Goshen and New Paris area, and that’s good, but there’s no shop (classes) any more. There’s no industrial (arts) in the schools themselves. They’ve taken that out of the curriculum and that’s really hard, and, you know, we run our own trucking firm and we can’t find drivers. You can’t find mechanics. I mean, it’s just a tough road right now in this general area. When I look around and see all that’s available in other parts of the country, it makes you wish we could get more here.

“At the same time, I’ve got to say that burdensome regulations have just eaten us alive. I was talking to H.R. (Smoker Craft’s Human Relations department) just this morning and we were discussing the Family Leave Act – which, in itself is a good thing. But the problem is the burdensome things you have to report, the new things that are required. I mean we’re actually having several people just working on that almost continually — those different things that are put on top of us. But I know you’re working hard to help us on that. And we appreciate that.”

Dicor’s Fore: “Ivy Tech (Ivy Tech Community College) ought to be part of this conversation about workforce training. I’ve been trying to help Ivy Tech (Elkhart campus) for the past four or five years and the problem we had with any institution that reports to any segment of government is that it moves extremely slowly. We, as industries, whether it’s RV or marine or any other industry in this area, are moving very rapidly – the product development, employment and change in general is very rapid.

“There are places like Kosciusko County, where there’s a long-term program with the biomedical industry with modern machinery and equipment where people get trained on specific skills to work in that industry, and when they come out of there they can go find a job in any one of those companies because they’re trained and skilled. There was a feeble attempt a couple years ago to do that for the RV industry at the Ivy Tech Elkhart campus. And I say feeble attempt not because it wasn’t backed properly because a few large companies did back it. And it failed miserably, and one of the reasons it failed was because we were teaching life skills. We’re not teaching high tech stuff. We’re teaching people to use a hammer and nails. We’re so past that.”

Congresswoman Walorski: On behalf of all the manufacturing we have in Elkhart County, of which the RV and boating industries certainly are leaders – this being one of the largest manufacturing-based Congressional districts in the nation – I’ve spent most of my time in Congress playing defense to back off these rules and regulations and let these industries do what they do best, which is continue to add to the workforce and the economy of our state and our nation. And it’s a full-time job, beating back regulations.

“This is a very overregulated administration and a lot of these agencies like the EPA have completely overregulated these industries. So, I do long for the day when we can actually move on to a time when we incentivize folks more than penalize them. And that’s kind of what this attitude has been in the government – you know, overregulation, always finding ways to bring in additional revenue through punitive fines, especially with the EPA. Government hinders these things, and Elkhart County is one of the most resilient counties I’ve ever seen – known around the nation, especially for the RV and boating industry for being able to stay resilient and on top. And this is just another great example today of what that means.”

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