Slow Trickle Down for Elkhart County Recovery

March 14, 2011 by · Comments Off on Slow Trickle Down for Elkhart County Recovery 

Editor’s Note: The following story about the economic recovery in Elkhart County, Ind., was written by Tom Coyne of the Associated Press and appeared in several newspapers, including The Goshen News.

John Sinning has been looking for work since he was laid off from his job as a manufacturing engineer two years ago. Insurance executive Joe Christophel has been without steady work since October 2009.

Both see reports that the economy is improving, and they’ve watched the unemployment rate in Elkhart County drop from 18.9% in March 2009 to 12.2% in January. But like so many others across the country, Sinning and Christophel say the fledgling recovery hasn’t trickled down to them yet.

“I do see more positions out there that are in areas where I feel I have some qualifications for. That’s probably about the most hopeful thing I see,” Christophel said. “But it’s still very difficult to actually get interviews.”

Nearly two years after the recession’s official end, the road to recovery is still a slow climb in places like northern Indiana’s Elkhart County, which President Barack Obama held up during his campaign and in two postelection visits as a symbol of the nation’s economic woes. Even as Indiana officials herald a drop in the statewide jobless rate to 9.1%, its lowest since January 2009, many in this manufacturing-dependent county are still grasping for the opportunities Obama said were the key to economic recovery.

Aid groups say demand for help is on the rise, and economists say the flickers of life in the economy are still too weak to compensate for all the jobs lost — many when the recreational vehicle industry collapsed.

“Those who have been able to find work in many cases haven’t been able to get back to the sorts of work or the level of work they were doing before. It’s just a sign that the recovery has been slow to create new jobs to regain the millions that were lost,” said Jerry Conover, director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

“It’s going to be uncomfortable for lots of folks to deal with that reality in the coming years,” he said.

That uncomfortable reality is evident each week when a support group for the unemployed called People Between Jobs convenes in Elkhart.

Pam Duncan runs the meetings, working at times as a cheerleader and others as a career counselor for the mostly white-collar workers who gather.

The meetings start with a prayer and the reading of blessings, then Duncan asks how many of those present applied for jobs in the past week and had job interviews. During a recent meeting that Sinning attended, all seven present had applied for jobs, and four had interviews.

None had job offers.

Sinning, 62, who was laid off from his job at a company that makes products for motorhomes, said he has applied for jobs in management and as a journeyman tool and die maker. He’s getting by on his savings and an antique and art business that he started while he continues his hunt.

“This stuff is OK, but it’s just so slow,” he said.

Duncan says more jobs are cropping up, but it’s not all good news.

“What I have found is that people who are getting jobs are getting not as many hours and not as much money,” she said.

Ed Swartley, executive director of The Window, a community volunteer center that offers free clothes and food to those in need, said the charity saw the number of meals it serves each month double to about 400 last August.

“Last year was our toughest year, and I don’t see this year changing,” he said.

Swartley estimates about 65% to 70% of the people who visit The Window have been laid off or have jobs that don’t pay enough to make ends meet. Before August, those seeking help primarily were people living on the edge of poverty to begin with. Now, more people from the middle class are seeking assistance, he said.

David Schrock-Shenk, who founded a grass-roots group called Elkhart County Works Together to help the unemployed in the Goshen area, thinks things are getting worse for many residents.

“Two years in, we’re starting to see a new victim of that economic recession at a time when people’s attention goes to other places. People are much closer to the edge. The margin is gone. The emotional resilience is gone,” he said.

Christophel, 63, who has 27 years’ experience in the insurance industry, isn’t giving up.

He sets up his computer along the wall of The Electric Brew cafe in downtown Goshen most weekday mornings and starts looking for work.

Christophel has been getting by on unemployment and the money his wife earns as a school social worker while he searches for full-time work.

If a full-time position doesn’t arise, he hopes to get off unemployment by cobbling together part-time jobs. He already has one lined up working one day a week with the Mennonite Church USA and hopes to land another one-day-a-week job with another church group soon. The two would eliminate the need to collect unemployment, and that alone would be a victory, he said.

“I’d really like to get off unemployment,” he said. “If I can move on and move off that, it feels positive.”

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