ELKHART — The global economy is keeping Dorinda Heiden-Guss very busy these days.
And she doesn't expect to take her foot off the gas any time soon.
Despite significant numbers of new jobs created in Elkhart County in the past two years, Heiden-Guss, president of Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, realizes that as long as the global economy continues to evolve and force companies to make painful decisions just to survive, she and others committed to facilitating job growth will have to keep paddling nonstop just to keep up.
In recent days, Elkhart County's employment picture took another hit as Gunite Corp., sped up its time line to close its Elkhart plant that had employed about 210 people as of July. The plant ceased operations Friday, leaving 142 people without immediate long-term employment.
And days earlier, officials at Cequent Performance Products announced it will eliminate 450 jobs when it closes its Goshen operation in 2013.
Cequent, a maker of trailer hitches, will benefit by moving its manufacturing operations to Mexico, which offers lower wages.
Gunite, a maker of wheel components, is consolidating operations to Rockford, Ill., after being hurt significantly by inexpensive competition overseas, said Timothy Weir, a spokesman for Gunite's parent company, Accuride Corp.
Gunite qualified for special benefits for workers because the company was able to prove it was being hurt directly by off-shore competition that Gunite officials believe is being subsidized by the government of the country that is supplying the products.
“The prices are significantly enough below the competing U.S. products that it's very difficult to compete,” Weir said.
Combined, those two closings will leave up to 660 workers seeking new jobs in coming months.
To offset those losses, officials need to focus even more on business recruitment and retention, Heiden-Guss said.
“That's why we need economic development. We have to constantly be doing this. Companies close, merge, relocate and expand. We need to be there ready to assist,” Heiden-Guss said.
While there is only so much local officials can do about global economic pressures, they remain motivated to help cushion the blow in various ways.
In addition to seeking out new business to the county, EDC of Elkhart County also focuses on assisting existing businesses and working with educators and manufacturers as well as Indiana's Workforce Development to ensure workers have the skills needed to fill the local job demands.
The group also relies on more than two dozen board representing a wide variety of interests in the community. She calls it a “culture of engagement.”
“These are just trends that take place in the business cycle and it's paramount that we assist those who are being let go in their positions so they can find and recover as quick as possible into new positions,”Heiden-Guss said.
Nationally, she said she expects more companies will continue to announce more layoffs in the next year or so. Much of that comes from a changing business climate as well as government regulations.
While the loss of 660 jobs is a painful blow to the families and the local economy, there are numerous glimmers of hope.
Several officials expressed confidence that companies in Elkhart County can absorb many of those jobs.
Heiden-Guss said she knows of companies that have openings and are eyeing some of the recently displaced workers. She's also aware of a firm that is interested in Cequent's building, a possible future move that could spur more job growth.
On top of that, Heiden-Guss is working with four companies that are either new or expanding and will be hiring soon. All four are seeking tax abatement from the county.
Those include a new recreational van company and three manufacturing firms.
Heiden-Guss and other business leaders expressed a sense of confidence that many of the workers from Gunite and Cequent will find new jobs.
That was echoed by Chris McDonald, a machine operator for Gunite who lost his job Friday after 28 years with the company. He said he knows of former coworkers who have already found new jobs and is somewhat optimistic.
Having a good track record at work and solid skills will play in their favor, said David Daugherty, president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce.
“That is something they should really use to their advantage and present it to the potential employers they're going to be looking at,” Daugherty said.
Kyle Hannon, vice president of public policy at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, sounded hopeful as well, but added: “The question is the matching of the skills and whether the laid off workers are maybe a step above what might be available for that entry level.”
Staff Reporter Justin Leighty contributed to this report
A look at some recent job gains
While two companies are in the midst of plant closings that will result in about 660 job losses, Elkhart County companies continue to seek more workers. Below is a look at some of the companies and projected plans for hiring.
Ÿ Fortress Technologies is seeking tax abatement from the county for a plant in Middlebury with plans to hire as many as 266 people. Fortress is a startup company that manufactures frames for the recreational vehicle industry.
Ÿ Vista Manufacturing, which makes LED lighting products, is also seeking tax abatement from the county. The company plans to add 15 new jobs in Elkhart.
Ÿ Grand Design Recreational Vehicles went public this week with an announcement they are starting production north of Middlebury. While no jobs numbers are solid, they plan to steadily increase from their first line of RVs through another five, with the first three in production by this time next year.
Ÿ Agdia Inc. announced in September plans to add 22 full-time jobs in Elkhart over the next seven years. The company makes kits for farmers to test plants for diseases that affect the quality of crops.
Ÿ Forest River Inc., a recreational vehicle manufacturer, plans to add 160 jobs in Middlebury and Millersburg over a span of eight years.
Ÿ Champagne Metals is constructing a new site in Greenfield Industrial Park in York Township that will bring 39 new jobs over the next nine years. The company produces metal sheets used in the recreational vehicle industry.