GOSHEN — Elkhart County has two problems that most people would expect to fix each other: Unemployment persists above 8 percent, 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.
What’s the problem?
While Elkhart County’s unemployment rate has dropped drastically since the recession, it was still 8.4 percent 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.”
Ami Butler of Elite Staffing, a firm which finds employees for area manufacturers, said she has one client in Ligonier with 250 open jobs and she can’t find qualified people. The qualifications require passing a hair-follicle drug test, no felony convictions and a basic education.
A few weeks ago she invited 23 people to a job orientation in Goshen. “These people had a job offered to them. All they had to do was just come fill out the paperwork. Eight showed, and one, when I put the drug screens down, one asked to use the restroom and then left and didn’t come back,” she said.
Dave Daugherty, head of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce, estimated there are between 1,000 and 2,000 open jobs in the Goshen area right now. “Eight percent unemployment, and we can’t fill those jobs,” he said.
Kyle Hannon of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce said, “It’s a frightening thing. Why would a place with high unemployment have unfilled jobs?”
Talking with local employers, he’s heard stories like Butler’s: Drug tests eliminate applicants, then those who are hired don’t come back. People talk about job training, Hannon said, but “sometimes the type of training needed is showing up for work and being willing to work hard.”
Butler said, “Where is everybody? Why don’t they want a job?”
She said she’s placed a couple dozen people from Michigan City and LaPorte in Elkhart County jobs because she can’t get local workers.
“We’ve always been flush with jobs and industry here. We’ve been fortunate with a great area, and that’s kind of spoiled people to where we are now,” said Butler.
One man even told her he’d rather be on unemployment because it paid better than the job she offered. “He had good experience, good labor experience, longevity in a couple of places, but then he just decided he wouldn’t do it,” she said. “I turn people like that in” for unemployment fraud, she said.
What’s the answer?
“I don’t have any answers,” said Butler. “I wish there was somebody that could tell me why, because I want to fix it. I want to employ people.”
Hannon said, “There are jobs out there. It’s just puzzling why we have a high unemployment rate and these jobs out there.”
One group, the Corporate Partnership for Economic Growth, is actively looking for answers right now. Its “Northern Indiana Regional Workforce Initiative” hired an Indianapolis company to survey area employers and sit down with focus groups.
It plans to issue a final report with recommendations within the next couple of months to “outline a road map for building a regional workforce that can fill open position(s) today and be prepared for the jobs of the future,” according to CPEG’s announcement of the initiative. The group isn’t ready to discuss what it has learned until the report is finished.