Currently, the Elkhart County economy is roaring. Jobs are plentiful. Companies are competing for workers. Wages are starting to climb. We are the envy of the nation. So everything is great and we don’t have to do anything, right?
Those of us who have lived here a few years remember when times were not so good. The local economy is susceptible to economic swings. Elkhart County produces a wide variety of products used across the globe. But we have an enormous concentration in products that are non-essential, high-priced items. Of course, I’m talking about recreational vehicles and boats. When something happens to the economy, something beyond our control, it impacts the ability of people to buy our products.
We should be proud of our products. Every weekend, millions of people around this country are enjoying camping, boating and outdoor recreation in products made in our community by our neighbors. Travel anywhere in this country and you will see the hands of Elkhart County. Our workers make these products better than anybody in the world.
So, if we make great products, and these products are in demand, can’t we just wait out the economic cycles? The economy will eventually correct whatever problem caused the economic slump and buyers will be back to get a new camper or pontoon boat. Right?
The problem is that the products and markets and world around us is constantly changing. Things don’t just pick up where they left off. These same workers who are your friends and neighbors, the ones who are experts at their products, will face the need for a different product or process when the economy resumes.
Do you remember when the layoffs hit hard, back in 2008? Thousands of workers were sent to the unemployment offices. To their surprise, unemployment was not handled with paper. The process had moved to a computerized system. Unfortunately, many of these suddenly unemployed workers did not have the skills to file for unemployment. The fine people at WorkOne were able to assist. But it was alarming that the skill level of employees was not ready.
Hopefully, more people are familiar with computers today. Are they familiar enough? As companies continue to more toward automation, are they good enough at computer to program the automated machines? Even if they never need to program the machine, can they maintain it? Even clean it?
Manufacturing has become a sophisticated process. Modern production lines include automated machines and improved processes. People perform jobs that they may not have been expected to do 20 years ago. Safety is a top concern, and so is quality and continuous improvement. They need to understand electronics, fluid power, motor control, and more.
As Indiana’s community college, Ivy Tech has been working with companies, K-12 schools, and local organizations to ensure that the programs we offer provide the skills that our community needs. Sometimes, the companies send their workers for more training and education. Sometimes the workers themselves seek additional credentials so they are prepared for a new job, a promotion, or a life change.
Statewide, Ivy Tech Community College awarded nearly 26,000 certificates and degrees last year. Locally, the South Bend-Elkhart Campus awarded more than 1,700. The statewide goal is for students to earn 50,000 high-quality certifications, certificates and degrees per year by the year 2023. The South Bend-Elkhart Campus will be an important part of that goal.
Why does Ivy Tech have this goal? Why is higher education important? Why take time away from the production line to study, attend class, or – heaven forbid – take a test?
As the economy changes, which it always does, companies in our community adapt to stay competitive. If our companies stay on top of the game, our region will continue to make the products enjoyed by the world. As the companies adapt, their workers need to be ready to adapt with them. In many cases, the skills earned by the workers will determine how far a company can go.
If the unfortunate happens, and the economy turns the wrong way, workers need the skills to help a company rebound. If the company can’t rebound, workers with a recognized credential or degree, will be valuable to another company. Education is a worthwhile investment.
Kyle R. Hannon is executive director of Ivy Tech Community College in Elkhart County and previously served as president and chief executive officer of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce.