In the year 2000, the rate hovered in the 2-percent range all year. For the seven-plus years from 2001 through March 2008, the last time it was as low as 5.8 percent, the rate averaged 4.6 percent.
But take a ride down C.R. 6, or through any industrial area in Elkhart County, and you'll see many companies posting "now hiring" signs out front.
Doug Gaeddert, a general manager at Forest River Inc. and chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, says the county seems to be at "virtual zero" unemployment. He said he thinks the community has simply grown lazier.
“Whether it’s cultural, whether it’s policy driven, (virtual zero) is higher because there aren’t enough folks that want to get up and bust their butts every day, plain and simple,” Gaeddert said following a recent meeting RVIA hosted to address a shortage of RV transport drivers. “It’s part federal government (for making unemployment benefits too plentiful), part cultural shift, but if you want to ask me, do I think we’re lazier than we were seven or eight years ago, absolutely. Go back and look, 3.5 or 4 percent, we were fully employed. Now it’s 6 percent, we’re fully employed. Why do you think?”
Elkhart County's March rate declined 0.4 percent from its 6.2-percent level in February. Surrounding counties' rates fell by similar margins. LaGrange and Kosciusko counties' rates decreased from 5.4 percent to 5 percent, and St. Joseph County's rate dropped from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent.
Statewide, the seasonally adjusted rate decreased from 6.1 percent to 5.9 percent.
The county's official unemployment rate comes from a monthly survey of 1,000 households that the Census Bureau conducts on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, said Joe Frank, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which releases the numbers monthly. The March rate reflects a labor force of 94,726, with 89,251 employed and 5,475 unemployed. That's 5.8 percent.
In March 2008, the county's labor force count was higher, estimated at 99,857, or 5,131 more people.
Kyle Hannon, president and CEO of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks today's smaller labor force reflects people who left the area when the 2008 recession hit hard, people who've given up looking for work, and those who aren't looking for work because they went back to school.
The first explanation, that many people fled the county when jobs dried up, doesn't seem to be supported by Census figures. According to the Census Bureau's annual population estimates, the county's total population hasn't changed much. It was 200,563 on July 1, compared to 200,502 on July 1, 2009.
"How have we hung on to relatively high unemployment at the same time companies are looking for quality workers?" Hannon said. "There are questions here that mere unemployment statistics don't answer. But many times the unemployment numbers are all we have. So it is extremely encouraging to see the numbers dropping back toward where they should be. And I'm sure the increased pressure on wages is welcome in our community."