GOSHEN — Improving wages for production workers will be one of Elkhart County’s biggest economic challenges in 2013 and beyond, according to the head of the Northern Indiana Workforce Board.
Board president and CEO Greg Vollmer met with county and city leaders Tuesday, June 25, to talk about issues facing the area’s production sector, mainly in the recreational vehicle industry. Vollmer is responsible for WorkOne offices in Elkhart, St. Joseph, Kosciusko, Marshall and Fulton counties. The agency provides job placement services, programs for people re-entering the job market after incarceration and mentors kids at risk of dropping out of school.
The list of problems for the RV industry includes low pay, unskilled job applicants and poor management, Vollmer said.
“All of those pieces are part of the big puzzle,” he explained. “It’s not a real simple thing. Everyone wants to throw a dart, hit the bullseye and fix the problem, and you can’t do that.”
Wages for production jobs have slowly declined in Elkhart County over the past four years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, production workers accounted for about 33 percent of the county’s labor force and had an average annual salary of $29,130, which was about $4,610 below the state average.
County commissioner Mike Yoder pointed out, however, that Tuesday’s meeting with WorkOne represented a “very narrow slice” of the county’s economy.
“This was not a full picture of Elkhart County,” he said. “We looked at production wages only, just that category.”
Yoder estimated that the average earnings across the county are closer to $34,000 annually, not $29,000.
Yoder added that the county is taking steps to attract companies that offer diverse job opportunities with higher paying positions. For example, Yoder has been working to pass a countywide tax incentive policy with the cooperation of the cities that would create a uniform application process for companies that are planning to expand or relocate.
Yoder has also been working closely with the Horizon Education Alliance to develop programs that expand educational opportunities for kids inside and outside of the classroom.
Vollmer said WorkOne has become increasingly involved with adult education programs over the past couple of years. He added, however, that there is still a stigma among employers about job applicants who have GEDs instead of high school diplomas.
“Something has happened in their life that they weren’t able to complete high school,” he said. “There are a multitude of reasons. They all have stories, but they have chosen to go back, put the effort in, persevered and graduated. That’s exactly the person I want working for me, yet we still have employers saying they don’t want that.”
Looking ahead, WorkOne business consultant Bob Marion believes the four-year projection for jobs is relatively strong, estimating that the county could create roughly 2,600 new positions. Economic growth, however, may be “slow to moderate” because of steep competition among businesses, a shortage of large buildings for companies to expand and a continuing skills gap among employees, Marion said.
Vollmer is confident in Elkhart County’s ability to bounce back.
“This is one of the most resilient places in the country,” he said. “I’m proud of that.”