County should celebrate its economic recovery

Posted on Oct. 27, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

Late last month, when Goshen Community Schools acknowledged that it was suddenly finding it difficult to hire good substitute teachers, few gave the story more than a shrug.

But it’s a story worth revisiting because it shows just how far this community has come in the last five years.

The Elkhart-Goshen Metropolitan Statistical Area started 2008 with a workforce of 99,873. Just 5,228 — 5.2 percent — could not find employment.

All that changed when the Great Recession clobbered Elkhart County and its RV manufacturers. Unemployment more than tripled by the end of 2008, to 15,523 — 16.4 percent. A reporter for The New York Times visited Elkhart and called it “the white-hot center of the meltdown of the American economy.”

As it turns out, we were just getting started. Elkhart and Goshen shed jobs faster than anyplace else in the nation, and by March 2009, unemployment reached 20.2 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 18,632 people here could not find work.

Then we started fighting back.

The federal stimulus plan provided Elkhart with $41 million, which it used to create 200 jobs. Local and state tax abatements attracted millions in capital investments, allowing manufacturers to create hundreds of jobs. The stock market recovered, banks began expanding consumer loans, and the RV industry once again boomed. In August, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association estimated that 83 of all North American RVs are built in Elkhart County, accounting for about a quarter of all local employment.

The poster child for America’s Great Recession began to repeatedly lead the nation in employment gains, and the county jobless rate dropped to 7.7 percent — its lowest since June 2008, when it stood at 6.7 percent.

We still face challenges, to be sure. The recession created hardship throughout the community, but lashed out fiercely at those least capable of defending themselves. Childhood poverty in Elkhart County increased from 16.2 percent in 2007 to a staggering 27.4 percent in 2011. We will spend years, if not decades, trying to undo the physical, emotional and economic harm the downturn inflicted on our children.

Whether we have an economy that can keep our best and brightest here in Elkhart County remains to be seen as well, since the community remains closely tied to RV and automotive manufacturing.

So the question becomes this: If we face such daunting questions about our future, why should we celebrate Goshen’s struggles to find quality substitute teachers?

Because it proves we’ve turned a corner.

When the recession hit, many local college-educated workers turned to substitute teaching when they lost their jobs. Now, said Marceil Royer, assistant superintendent of human resources for Goshen Community Schools, those substitutes are returning to full-time employment — some of them as teachers in the Goshen public schools.

About 7,000 people still cannot find jobs in Elkhart County. Our recovery is not complete.

But we’ve shown that we have the determination and insight necessary to rebuild our economy — and a small, overlooked story out of Goshen shows how far we’ve come since the recession.

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