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5 Years Later: Job offerings aplenty but labor is cheaper than before

This story, part of a project examining Elkhart County after the Great Recession, gives one man’s personal struggle with finding a job that will pay high enough to earn a living.

Posted on July 13, 2014 at 5:00 a.m.

GOSHEN — As he hunts for work, Craig Rippey has noticed something — employers seem to be paying less.

He believes they want to hire at minimum wage — or close to it, anyway — “because people are dime a dozen today.”

Rippey, of Goshen, was laid off nine months ago from his $15-an-hour job at an Elkhart firm installing air conditioning and heating units in commercial vehicles.

In the time since then, his job search has lead him to the conclusion that his labor is seen as highly replaceable. For example, he was offered for a job that would pay about $9 an hour, and the shift would last 10 hours with a minimal lunch break.

"I couldn’t do that. They work you a full day and give a 15-minute lunch,“ Rippey said. He was at The Window in Elkhart County, which is a nonprofit agency that assists the needy. His wife, Christina, was gathering food at The Window’s food pantry.

Ultimately, he passed on the $9-an-hour possibility. At 28 years old, he can justify holding on to his part-time job and continue searching for something better.

As the economy recovers, some employers have called in to question the work ethic of some in the labor pool here, lamenting what seems to be ho-hum motivation. There are jobs to be had, they say, but too few workers are stepping forward to take them.

From Rippey’s perspective, though, it’s not a matter of work ethic. Pay level is the thing. If the pay isn’t sufficient, it’s tough to muster interest. In his view, companies are offering lower pay ”because they know people are desperate now.“

WORKERS’ WAGES DOWN

Rippey may be on to something.

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that production jobs in Elkhart County, which account for the single largest bloc of workers, dropped from $16.37 an hour on average in 2009 to $14.24 four years later. Annually that’s a drop from $34,040 a year to about $29,360 and results in making about $85 less per week.

The loss of those dollars makes a big difference on many families. For example, an average family of four with two young children spends anywhere from $129 to $251 each week in groceries, according to federal data. The low number is based on a “thrifty budget” and the higher on a “liberal budget.

Meanwhile, the labor force — those actually looking for work, as gauged by the BLS — has shrunk, meaning employers have a smaller pool of workers to draw from.

For the first five months of 2014, the labor force totaled 95,066, averaged over the period. It’s 9,311 fewer people in the labor force compared to 2006.

Mindful of such trends, Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder, who closely watches the local economy, thinks an adjustment could be in the offing. He hears employers’ laments that they’re unable to find the workers they need, but also suspects the recession pushed wages here down, as indicated by the BLS numbers.

"If businesses want workers, they’re going to have to pay more money,” he said. Indeed, he’s hearing rumblings of moves among employers to increase wages to steal talent from competitors.

STILL HOPEFUL

If a northward push in wages is coming, Rippey is waiting. In the meantime, he, his wife and their two kids have moved in to his father’s Goshen home to cut corners.

From The Window, he said, he was going to sort out a problem related to his water bill, before the water gets cut off. Then he was going to put in an application at an auto mechanics’ garage.

"I’m hoping we get back there eventually,“ he said.

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.




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