Indiana’s Elkhart County has two problems that most people would expect to fix each other: Unemployment persists above 8%, while at the same time employers are having a harder and harder time filling open positions ranging from technical to basic production.
While there are many thoughts about the problem, there are no clear-cut answers so far, according to a report in the Elkhart Truth.
What’s the problem?
While Elkhart County’s unemployment rate has dropped drastically since the recession, it was still 8.4% in September, well above national and state averages.
Despite that, Mike Hoover, president of KIB Electronics in Elkhart, said it’s getting tougher to hire people. “It’s starting to tighten up a little bit. Up until now we’ve had a really good pool,” he said.
Bill Faubion, director of engineering at the company, said in conversations with their manufacturing director, “A year ago he could sometimes interview five or six people and hire two people. Now they interview 16 to 20 and hire two.”
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RVs, Amish food, the fair, Notre Dame games and quilt gardens helped bring in visitors spending $273 million with an impact of more than $400 million to Indiana’s Elkhart County last year, according to a study released Oct. 9 by the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
According to a report by The Elkhart Truth, the study by Certec Inc. showed travel and tourism brought in $401.6 million, up $23 million over the previous study, which looked at 2009.
That figure includes the $273.1 million in direct expenditures plus the so-called “ripple effect” of spending by local people employed because of those tourism dollars.
“This growth in visitor spending is significant when you consider Elkhart County was in a deep economic recession in 2009,” said Diana Lawson, executive director of the convention and visitors bureau.
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Casino nights, hog roasts, live bands, catered meals, golf and new products will accompany acres upon acres upon acres of RVs greeting thousands of dealers at the ever-growing Elkhart County RV Open House Week this week in northern Indiana.
As reported by the Elkhart Truth, RVs will line County Road 6 on Elkhart’s northeast side, but the events will spread beyond that, to Elkhart’s south side, Nappanee, Middlebury and Shipshewana.
Last year an estimated crowd of more than 3,000 dealers attended the informal string of events in Elkhart County, and the biggest exhibitors, Forest River and Thor, expect the crowd to be even larger this year. Forest River has 75 more dealers registered this year, meaning about 500 more registered attendees, and they were still getting last-minute additions Friday, according to a company spokeswoman.
The displays will be larger, with new models coming from nearly everyone, at least one new RV company joining in, and a new RV factory highlighted.
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The following is a story from a series of four articles in the Elkhart (Ind.) Truth examining the plight of displaced workers since the recession took hold in the northern Indiana manufacturing hub. To view the entire article – a profile of former Monaco Coach worker Ed Neufeldt – and to read the other stories in the series click here.
When he learned four years ago that he’d soon lose his job, it shook Ed Neufeldt’s world.
After all, he had spent 32 years — more than half his life at the time — at the recreational vehicle maker, Monaco Coach Corp. Moreover, the company, a giant in the field, was hardly a fly-by-night operation.
“I was so surprised,” recalled Neufeldt. “We were one of the biggest RV companies and I had thought we would never close the doors.”
Neufeldt, who lives in Wakarusa, was hardly alone. About 1,400 Monaco workers in all were laid off in 2008, among many others in the all-important RV sector here who also got pink slips as industry sales plummeted on the down economy.
Perhaps he would’ve just remained a faceless statistic, one of many here rattled by the economy. But Neufeldt somehow caught the attention of the White House — he put a face on the economic woes faced by many — and ended up introducing President Barack Obama when he visited Elkhart County on Feb. 9, 2009. Unemployment that year spiked to 18% in Elkhart County, about as bad as anywhere in the country, and the president came to discuss his economic stimulus plan, speaking at Concord High School.
To view the entire article click here.
The following article from U.K-based The Guardian examines the slow recovery in Indiana’s Elkhart County and the area’s significance in President Barack Obama’s bid to secure a second term. To read the entire article click here.
For the past three years Ed Neufeldt has been wearing the same green rubber bracelets stamped “Jobs for America”. He plans to take them off when unemployment in his home town of Elkhart, Indiana, falls below 8%. That day appears, finally, to be approaching – albeit achingly slowly. “The whole United States is not doing that good,” Neufeldt says. “But here we’re better off than we were three years ago.”
Few towns hold as much history for Barack Obama’s presidency as Elkhart. This was the city where he fought to establish himself as the candidate of hope and change, first in a bruising encounter with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and then for the presidency. On his road to victory, Obama visited here four times in 15 months, and in February 2009 he chose Elkhart for his first trip outside Washington since his inauguration.
Neufeldt, then an unemployed recreational vehicle worker, was thrust into the national spotlight when he was chosen to introduce the newly inaugurated president of the United States at a local rally. “I am hoping and praying that president Obama will put the people of Elkhart County back to work. The stakes are high,” Neufeldt said then.
“I promised you back then if I was elected, I would do everything I could to help this community recover, and that’s why I’m back here today,” said Obama as he pushed the American Recovery Act, an $800bn stimulus plan he hoped would get America back to work.
Back then unemployment in the area was 18%. Obama charmed the locals, playing basketball with children in the streets and dipping into local diners to the shock and delight of proprietors and patrons alike. And he made big promises.
Four years on, Elkhart has gone from a symbol of Obama’s message of hope to a perfect example of the biggest hurdle the president faces in his bid for re-election: the gap between empirical measures that show economic recovery, and the pain people continue to feel. That is why Obama will have one clear goal when he delivers his acceptance speech to the Democratic national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday night: spelling out a compelling economic case for giving him four more years.
“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan famously asked voters in the 1980 campaign. It is the question that looms over the 2012 presidential election, and one which has dogged the Obama campaign this week as they have struggled to come up with a convincing answer.
To read the entire article click here.
Members of the Elkhart County Council Saturday (Aug. 11) approved two tax phase-in agreements for Elkhart, Ind.-based Forest River Inc. that promise to bring as many as 160 new jobs to the area.
According to the Goshen News, a tax phase-in is a partial or temporary exemption of a company from having to pay property taxes with the express purpose of stimulating economic development.
First to be approved Saturday was a resolution supporting an eight-year tax phase-in agreement involving Forest River’s Millersburg complex. Dave Ogle, director of business retention and expansion for the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, helped present the proposal for Forest River.
“I always want to reiterate our appreciation of Forest River being one of our premiere employers in the marketplace, employing well in excess of 3,000 Indiana or Elkhart County employees at their facilities, and certainly one of the higher paying facilities in the county,” Ogle said. “So we appreciate the opportunity to compete for their business.”
According to county attorney Craig Buche, the Millersburg expansion promises approximately $2 million in real estate redevelopment coupled with approximately $150,000 in new manufacturing equipment.
In addition, the company has indicated plans to hire approximately 120 new full-time positions. Such hiring is expected to lead to an annual increase in payroll of nearly $5.5 million.
“We recognize the fact that Forest River could build their plants anywhere,” said Elkhart County Council President John Letherman following the phase-in approval. “We’re thankful that you’re choosing to make significant investments in Elkhart County, which further cement Forest River in the community.”
In order to qualify for the tax phase-in agreement, Forest River has agreed to stay in operation at its Millersburg location for no less than 10 years. Should the company fail to meet its obligations under the phase-in agreement, Forest River would be forced to repay the county a prorated portion of the total real estate and personal property taxes saved as a result of the tax phase-in agreement.
The Goshen News reported that also approved Saturday was a resolution supporting a five-year tax phase-in for Forest River’s Middlebury complex that should bring 40 new full-time positions to the area.
In connection with this expansion, the company has indicated plans to invest approximately $1.25 million in new manufacturing equipment.
As for the 40 new full-time positions expected, Buche indicated that an annual increase in payroll of nearly $1.8 million can be expected.
As part of its tax phase-in agreement, Forest River has agreed that it will stay in operation for no less than seven years at its Middlebury location or face forfeiture of the agreement.
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an article in the Goshen News assessing the growing number of jobs in Indiana’s Elkhart County and the search by businesses to fill the positions. To read the entire story click here.
Elkhart County manufacturers have hundreds of job openings. Now they need the workers to fill them.
As the economy continues to inch upward and consumer spending rises, demand for products of all kinds is spurring a need for more workers.
“We have positions that have opened up. We need commercial sewing operators and we need people to do assembly and upholstering,” said Steve Yoder, vice president for human resources at Wieland Designs in Goshen.
The company manufactures seat covers for the airline, automobile and furniture industries.
To attract workers to the plant, Wieland partnered with the worker recruiting company Specialty Staffing Solutions to hold a job fair Saturday (June 23) morning.
“Right now we could use 10 to 15 sewing operators and seven to eight assembly and upholstery people,” Yoder said Friday before the fair.
For those workers who have some sewing training and possess a desire to learn, it takes the Wieland staff six to 10 months of training to get the new hire’s skill level up to an acceptable level, according to Yoder.
“When you are making a high-end seat cover for a high-end Ford Mustang Cobra, there is very little room for error,” he said.
Wieland’s situation typifies many area manufacturers, which is reminiscent of the good times before the recession took hold.
In June 2007 the nation’s economy was steaming full-speed ahead. As consumers grabbed up luxury goods of all kinds, the dominant recreational vehicle industry in Elkhart County had trouble finding enough workers to build its products. During the heyday of June 2007 the county’s employment grew to 132,200 people. Many of those were driving into the county from southern Michigan and surrounding Indiana counties.
The recession hit the RV industry hard and jobs and companies disappeared quickly. In January of this year the county’s employed workers numbered 107,700, which was actually a 4.6% boost over January 2010. But as the national economy continued its agonizingly slow growth, Elkhart County had a spurt of job creation.
There were 9,900 jobs added in the county from January to May, according to Indiana Workforce Development statistics.
Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Elkhart County Economic Development Corp., said her agency is working to lure manufacturers to the county and retain those already here.
She said the EDC in 2011 recorded more than 1,800 new jobs being announced through the agency and more than $115 million in new investment in the county’s companies.
Goshen, Ind.-based Supreme Industries is moving ahead with plans to add hundreds of jobs.
WSBT-TV, South Bend reported that the Goshen City Council granted final approval Tuesday (April 17) to a tax abatement request from Supreme Industries. The company says it expects to hire an additional 350 workers by 2015, while retaining more than 600 positions.
The company is planning to invest around $7 million as part of the expansion project. The new jobs should pay around $17 per hour.
Supreme Industries manufacturers specialized truck bodies, shuttle buses, armored vehicles and trolleys.
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a Sunday feature in Indiana’s Elkhart Truth offering a snapshot of the area’s economy as it recovers from the devastating unemployment and impact on its manufacturing base during the “Great Recession.” To view the entire article click here.
No one seems ready to exhale.
Most everyone can point to signs of an economic rebound around Elkhart County, with new jobs, business expansions and brightening attitudes about the future, but many are still holding their breath. While they see the community improving, they worry about a number of events and possibilities that could reverse the recovery.
Alex Strati, president for the northern region at Old National Bank, explained the hesitancy that consumers and businesses owners are feeling. The headwinds created by the presidential election and climbing fuel prices are giving people pause but, at the same time, the steady, upward performance of the stock market is giving them confidence about their investments.
Indeed, the bank has budgeted for growth this year, although that growth is anticipated to be modest.
“I really do think we are on the right track,” Strati said. “It’s much better than it was.”
Other professionals in the area hold similar opinions. They, too, believe things are better but challenges remain.
Pain at the Pump
With gas prices surpassing $4 a gallon and three suppliers hiking the price of their products as a result, Bill Dawson, vice president and general manager at Clean Seals Inc. in South Bend, is fearful another recession could bloom.
“If oil prices keep going up, it will derail what we have done,” he said.
He has met with his employees and prepared them for the possibility that if the economy sinks, everyone will take a pay cut. The smaller paychecks and fewer hours that were the norm during the recession could return if fuel prices drag down the recovery.
What happens at the pump ripples through the entire economy, Dawson noted. Consumers will be putting more money into their gas tanks and have less to spend on clothes, extra food and leisure activities like eating out.
Looking at his Elkhart County-based customers, Dawson believes fuel costs will eventually whack the recreational vehicle industry. Not only will gas crimp how much money consumers have for making a discretionary purchase of a motorhome or travel trailer, it will force manufacturers to pay more for every component that goes into a unit.
“I’m not trying to paint doom and gloom,” he said. “I think the economy is headed up but it’s very fragile.”
Even if the gas crisis eases and the economy continues to strengthen, Dawson doubts Elkhart County will boom like it once did. Still, he admires the work ethic and willingness to change to meet the demands.
“I don’t know of any place that has people like Elkhart County,” he said.
Looking for Workers
The people he sees walking along Middlebury Street in the afternoon draw special admiration from Scott Welch, president and CEO of Elkhart-based Welch Packaging Group Inc. In fact, he said he wants to hug them because they are making the effort to get and keep a job.
Surprisingly in the city with 12.1 percent unemployment, Welch said he is having trouble finding good candidates to fill the 10 to 15 positions he has open locally. Many of the people who submit applications, he said, have work histories that indicate they collect a paycheck until they qualify for unemployment. Then they quit.
“We’re trying to find people who want to work for the next 10 to 20 years and we’re not finding a very big pool,” Welch said.
The problem was common when unemployment was 4 to 5 percent and, after being dormant for the past couple of years, has cropped up again. It has reached such a point that recently Welch called company officials into a brainstorming session to figure out ways to attract people.
Over time, the difficulty finding workers could mean projects will get shifted from the Elkhart plant to Welch Packaging’s other operations across the Midwest. Plants in Cleveland, Chicago and Toledo, for example, Welch said, do not share Elkhart’s unique problem of finding people to employ.
“We have the work if we have the people,” he said.
To view the entire article click here.
Indiana’s Elkhart County is holding out hope that Think, the electric car company that set up shop there, can be resurrected by its Russian owner.
“We want them to be successful,” said Barkley Garrett, Elkhart’s economic development director, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We’d like to see them meet all their numbers. Certainly sooner rather than later we’d like to see them up and operating, producing the vehicles they thought they would be.”
But if the car company doesn’t restart, Garrett isn’t concerned. “If they were to go away today, it wouldn’t cost the city much.”
So far, Elkhart is out only $1,500 in tax benefits given to the company.
Others believe this city of 50,000 will find a way to reinvent itself another way, as it has done throughout its history.
A few short years ago Elkhart County could have been named RV County. But as gasoline prices rose, it didn’t take long for the impact to hit Elkhart. Monaco RV, which at one point had $1.2 billion in sales making high-end RVs, was among the consolidations and closures that hit the area when it sold itself to Navistar and then shuttered local operations.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Elkhart’s RV industry thought it was making a comeback because of the renewed need for portable and temporary housing. The bulk of RV orders, however, proved an illusion, masking the fact that real demand for RVs had declined precipitously, said Gregg Fore, president of Dicor Corp., an RV industry supplier based in Elkhart.
When the county’s unemployment topped 20% in 2009, up from 4% when the RV industry was at its peak, building electric cars looked like a viable future.
“One of our strengths is we reinvent ourselves,” said Philip Penn, who heads the local chamber of commerce.
For example, the city used to be the world’s largest band instrument manufacturer. The industry employed thousands from the late 1800s until the 1960s. One manufacturer, C.G. Conn, once employed 2,000 people.
“When the whistle blew for quitting time, you didn’t want to be in the way because, man, they’d come running out of there like ants,” Penn said.
According to the Chicago Tribune, when the bulk of instrument manufacturing moved overseas, Miles Laboratories, which was founded in Elkhart and best known for Alka-Seltzer, became the city’s largest employer. At one point, more than 4,000 people worked at the pharmaceutical-maker’s 1 million-square-foot campus.
But in the late 1970s, Bayer AG of West Germany, the world’s fourth-largest chemical producer, acquired Miles. By the 1980s, the Bayer campus essentially had been abandoned.
The city sold the property, turning over the campus to the Feed The Children charity for $1. The nonprofit today occupies a fraction of the campus, and the city plans to tear down many of the buildings.
Think isn’t the only green-tech company that has promised jobs that never surfaced. Two years ago, Indiana’s governor said Elkhart County would be the home of hybrid and plug-in trucks with old RV manufacturers partnering with young clean-tech companies.
Those deals never took place.
“How many are here today? None. How many received government money? All of them. Oops,” Fore said.
The county also has dabbled in alternative energy. “We’ve had our experiences with solar, wind and electric and, to date, we’ve not see those pay the dividends Washington promised,” said Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the county’s Economic Development Corp.
If another reinvention is in the works, Heiden-Guss says the county will have to raise the money because three visits from President Barack Obama haven’t brought much change to the unemployment rate.
Her department’s budget is scraped together from local town budgets and has just four employees, she said. “Our organization doesn’t have a dime more.”