ELKHART — So Elkhart County, what do you do for an encore?
After seeing the local economy make headlines nationally three years ago in the midst of the Great Recession, Elkhart County’s employment picture has rebounded in near-equal measure over the past two to three years with job growth figures that beat those of any community in the United States.
Statistics released last week by the U.S. Labor Department showed Elkhart County’s percentage of job growth was three times stronger than the national average and a half a percent better than the second closest community.
A year ago, when similar figures were released, showing strong job gain that were among the best in the nation, Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, said she was reluctant to put too much credence in the report.
But the newest figures that show a 7.4 percent rise in job growth is an indication, Heiden-Guss said, that the local recovery has been “phenomenal.”
Combined over the past two years, the county has added more than 10,600 jobs to the workforce, according to the labor department.
“The RV industry is booming and surpassing records and essentially put us back on the map,” Heiden-Guss said.
Local officials say the recovery is still a work in progress and that they’re working to make further strides to ensure that those inevitable cyclical bumps in the economic road are less jarring than in the past.
Much of that involves efforts to diversify the county’s industrial base.
“This is a great opportunity for us
to take some risks and do some research and reach out beyond our comfort zone and to explore new opportunities,” Heiden-Guss said last week.
EDC has contracted with an expert to do “data mining” in an effort evaluate the market and identify opportunities for future growth, Heiden-Guss said.
Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore, who has repeatedly touted the job growth figures in recent weeks, echoed the need to diversify.
“A lot of credit goes to the RV industry as they are quick to recognize what needs to be done to make their products more marketable and they do it,” Moore said. “There is certainly more to be done in the area of diversification. The RV industry will remain our industry. But future efforts in job growth will require us to attract industry of another kind.”
Moore and Kyle Hannon, president of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, both credit EDC for their efforts in recent years, especially in job retention.
While there seems to have been a constant flow of companies expanding and seeking tax breaks, Hannon said he believes there are many other companies that are quietly hiring without any government incentives.
Elkhart County’s jobless rate is around 8.2 percent.
Heiden-Guss and Hannon both said they’re not satisfied with the recovery.
Some economists question whether the jobless rate will continue to fall to more traditional levels typically seen during solid economic times.
Hannon scoffs at the idea that the employment picture will not continue to improve or that current conditions are part of a “new reality” that suggests the long-term unemployed will not return to work.
“If you’re satisfied with that, you’re not working hard enough,” Hannon said.
Some of Hannon’s optimism is tempered by federal policies, namely the impact of the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama’s recent policy moves aimed at reducing the nation’s reliance on coal in light of concerns over climate change.
“There’s still a lot of questions out there about the Affordable Care Act. That is going to be a major thing,” Hannon said. “Also, the discussions about the war on coal, which impacts the Midwest more than anyone else.”
Meanwhile, more announcements concerning job growth are on the horizon.
Later this month, two more companies will announce expansion plans when representatives go before Elkhart County Council to seek tax breaks, according to Heiden-Guss.