GOSHEN — Many Elkhart County workers were frustrated to learn last week that while our unemployment rate persists well above the national level, there are many open jobs out there.
A number of the open manufacturing positions start at $10 to $12 an hour, with opportunities for advancement, but that starting point is a turn-off for many workers. It’s dropped from several years ago, according to a study by Ball State University, and it’s also well below a “living wage” for a single adult with a child, as defined by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
WHAT LOCAL WORKERS SAY
Steve Waterman, after seeing last week’s stories in The Elkhart Truth and on eTruth.com, wrote to us, saying, “When you hit 60, or have made any money, you are done.”
He detailed his story: “I am 60 years old. I am clean cut and articulate. I have been married to the same wonderful wife for 35 years. We have raised three kids. I have never done drugs. We attend church every week. I am never late for work.” He detailed his job skills, the fact he has his own tools and experience in various manufacturing operations.
“However, I have been out of work for four years and can’t beg anyone to hire me.” He rarely gets calls back when he applies for a job, he said.
Myron Yoder got an Associate’s Degree in electronics, thinking that college education in a technical field would benefit him. Instead, he’s working two jobs to support himself, delivering pizzas in Goshen.
“I have worked in electronics in Elkhart County and it is, I think, interesting that someone who has a high-school diploma and a little training and experience works hard and can pull down $50,000 a year ... to weld trailer frames,” Yoder wrote in an email exchange with The Truth. “But if you have an associate’s degree in electronics and 10 years experience, you can expect to realistically get about $20,000 to $25,000 per year for wages,” Yoder wrote.
“I was led to believe that if I went to college, got some training and some experience, I could live very comfortably and have a decent career in electronics. This county gives high merit for skills that don’t need a degree, but puts in the Dumpster people who have some college and technical experience,” Yoder said.
“I love living in Elkhart County, but the ‘brain drain’ is a reality here. I want better wages, I think I need to go to some other county that values its technical people more, but I was born and raised in Elkhart County and I love to live here,” Yoder said.
Daniel Hunt is employed right now, but at Cequent. Hunt, like hundreds of coworkers, is looking at his job moving to Mexico.
“My wife and I both work at Cequent and have no other means to make a living once our jobs get outsourced to Mexico,” he said. “The average wage at Cequent is right about $20 an hour, but we all know we will most likely have to take a cut in pay once the place goes to Mexico,” he said.
WHAT THE STUDIES SAY ABOUT THE LOCAL ECONOMY
Elkhart County has a high concentration of manufacturing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics focused on the county in a 2009 report, saying manufacturing accounted for 52 percent of private-sector employment in the county, “more than four times the national employment share in manufacturing of 12 percent.” The report also noted that more than a third of area employment was in production occupations, almost five times the national share, “making Elkhart-Goshen the metropolitan area with the highest percentage of production occupations in the country.”
According to a study released this week by Ball State University’s center for business and economic research, “in 2009, when the total employment was down 14.54 percent from the previous year, manufacturing jobs dropped significantly by 26.57 percent.”
The study continued, “This recent recession has taken its toll on the manufacturing industry in Elkhart County. Though some aspects, like manufacturing payroll and real average monthly earnings, have improved slightly in recent years, the employment rate and manufacturing establishments in Elkhart County have declined dramatically during the same period.”
Between 1998 and 2010, overall manufacturing wages (adjusted for inflation) dropped 4.8 percent in Elkhart County. Last year they inched back up to where they’d been as the economy tanked in early 2008, and where they were back in 2002 and 2003.
In 1998, average manufacturing jobs in Elkhart County brought in $3,423 a month in 2010 dollars. In 2010, though, manufacturing jobs brought in $3,258 a month.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a “living wage calculator” for cities and counties across the country. “Our tool is designed to provide a minimum estimate of the cost of living for low wage families. The estimates do not reflect a middle class standard of living.” The calculator factors in information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and various other government sources and organizations to estimate costs of living.
The calculator shows that a single parent with two children needs to make $22.49 to keep up with costs in Elkhart County, while two parents with three children would each need to make $21.10 an hour to do so.
Meanwhile, the average production wage in the county is $14.89 an hour.
Basically, if you’re a single parent with one child and you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a manager, an architect, an educator, a librarian, a business professional or a construction worker, you’re likely to make above MIT’s estimated living wage. Otherwise, you’re probably having a tough time making ends meet.
WHAT LOCAL EXPERTS SAY
David Daugherty with the Goshen Chamber of Commerce said the chamber and others are contemplating ways to incentivize companies to pay higher wages, by, for example, prohibiting tax breaks for companies that pay below $12 an hour.
“Goshen especially has a unique economy,” Daugherty said. “Most places don’t have the end product and all the component suppliers,” whereas the RV economy is heavily centralized here. Like in other industries, the people who assemble the final product are paid well, but the pay drops along the supply chain, he said. That leads to a disparity in manufacturing wages here. In Waterman’s case, Daugherty said, “that’s the group you really feel for, because it could be a while before those jobs come back.”
Though nobody likes it, sometimes you have to aim low, Daugherty said. “Even if you don’t like the pay, you need to take the job and work hard every day to build up that work history,” he said.
“The longer you’re out of work, the harder it is for someone to want to hire you because they question that work ethic. It’s important to find something to fill that void. I can empathize with him,” Daugherty said.
For someone like Yoder, he may have to leave to find good pay for his skills, Daugherty said. “You hate to lose skilled people, but that happens when there’s a downturn,” he said.
Brian Wiebe, head of the Horizon Education Alliance, a local group working to expand education in the county, said anecdotes like Yoder’s illustrate one difficulty here. “It is the local dynamic,” he said. While other manufacturing sectors have moved jobs out of the country, that hasn’t happened in the RV market.
“Across the country, employers talk about the ‘skills gap’ and say that they need workers with more experience or training. Part of the challenge for everyone is figuring out who is responsible for providing these learning opportunities, the education sector or the businesses themselves? Fortunately here in Elkhart County, both sectors are recognizing that collaboration is the key, and I expect we’ll make progress in the coming years to help to match business needs with employee resumes,” Wiebe said.
“Nearly all manufacturing in the U.S. is moving toward requiring more advanced skills, and workers without some type of post-secondary education will fall behind. One of HEA’s six goals is to help everyone attain some type of post-secondary degree, whether that is an associate or bachelor’s degree, or a welding certificate,” he said.
Even for people who have worked for decades in manufacturing, “It’s never a bad idea to invest into further skills training and education. Being proactive will help our community the next time there is a mild slump or something more major like what we experienced in 2009,” Wiebe said.