ELKHART — Elkhart County suffered the largest decrease in weekly average wages in the nation from March 2018 to March 2019, according to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday.
In that period, average weekly wages in Elkhart County decreased by 7.6 percent, from just above $1,000 to $930 per week.
Olmsted County, Minnesota, suffered the nation’s second-worst average wage decrease at 5.1 percent. The country as a whole saw an increase of 2.8 percent.
Manufacturing employees in Elkhart County took the brunt of the decline, with a decrease in wages of 12.7 percent – about $137 per week.
This year’s RV shipments are down about 20 percent from last year so far, with 2018 being down more than 4 percent from the year before, which set a record high.
Some in the RV industry, including RVIA director of media relations Kevin Broom, have argued that the downturn is not a result of a decrease in RV sales but rather a reaction to dealers perhaps buying too much in the two previous years.
Others, including sources in a Wall Street Journal article published Monday, have pointed out that multiyear decreases in RV shipments have historically predicted national recessions.
According to Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Levon Johnson, it’s important to keep in mind how well things have been going in Elkhart County.
“My initial response is, it’s a reflection on how well the economy was doing the last two years, when you look at where wages were,” he said.
Johnson said many manufacturing employees have gone from working overtime to now working 40 hours, or even four- or three-day weeks at some places.
“That has an impact on wages, clearly,” he said.
But comparing year-to-year has its dangers, Johnson believes. When you set a record high, as the RV industry did in 2017, the year after will most likely look disappointing if you only look at the record and forget about the long term.
“Peyton Manning threw 52 touchdowns one year and threw, I think, somewhere between 35 or 40 the next year, and people were asking what was wrong with him,” Johnson said.
After the Great Recession a decade ago, which led to a 20 percent unemployment rate in Elkhart in 2009, local politicians spoke often about diversifying the economy, but the RV industry clearly continues its local dominance, leading the county through big ups and downs, often being the nation’s worst or best.
This month, the city began work on its Elkhart 2040 plan, which is supposed to be an economic development plan at a scale never seen before in the city. One of the people leading the effort, Shelley Moore, said in July that the RV industry will eventually leave Elkhart, as did pharmaceuticals and, to a large extent, band instrument manufacturing.
The plan is supposed to help the city prepare for that day by creating ways to attract new industries and new talent.
In the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, which accounts for the 356 largest counties in the nation, Elkhart was the only one of the eight included Indiana counties to see a decrease in average wages.
Neighboring St. Joseph County experienced a 0.8 percent average wage increase.
The report also shows that employment in Elkhart County decreased by 1.8 percent, which is the fifth worst decrease in the nation. No other Indiana county included in the report saw a decrease in employment.
The nation’s high achiever in average wage increase was San Francisco County, California, with a 10.2 percent increase. Midland County, Texas, had the largest employment increase in the nation with 5.8 percent.
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