The vehicle assembly industry has provided thousands of jobs for decades in Elkhart County, but when looking ahead after the Great Recession, many people believe the time has come to pursue industrial diversity.
“Probably it is going to be hard to overcome in the next decade or two, because of the significant ebbs and flows of the economy, the RV industry is going to maintain a large presence in Elkhart County,” said David Daughtery, president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce. “But the goal is to try and soften that by looking at opportunities that are out there that will increase the non-RV manufacturing component of the community.”
Just how big of a footprint does the RV industry have in the county? According to Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, 23,000 jobs, or 24 percent of all jobs in the county, are tied to the industry.
“Which is fantastic when the RV and marine industries are booming,” Heiden-Guss said. “But clearly we need to broaden our reach or our base to add more of an even flow to offset those down periods.
“We have been so good at doing what we have always done that it has put us at a dangerous concentration. We still support in every way the RV and marine industries and because of them it is allowing our corporation to take some risks and even fail at trying and pursuing new opportunities.”
Heiden-Guss said the 28-member EDC board, which consists of mayors, a County Council member, a county commissioner, industrialists, bankers and other business people, unanimously agreed last fall to change the focus of the EDC, which had to focus on filling vacant factories during the recession.
According to Heiden-Guss, one of the new goals of the EDC is to court and attract non-RV companies that pay top dollar to their workers.
“Even though Elkhart County is recognized as manufacturing it is actually assembly,” Heiden-Guss said. “That does not pay at the level of advanced manufacturing, engineering type positions. Long term Elkhart County would like to benefit from the sophistications of certifications. Meaning, the ISO, QS 9000s, things along those lines. That would align well to be attractive to corporations that require more advanced skill base and pay higher incomes.”
How much more?
Heiden-Guss said the goal is to attract companies with 50 to 100 employees paying $30 or more per hour in wages. That level of earnings would far exceed the current compensation in the county.
According to state statistics, per capita income in 2012 in Elkhart County was $35,500. Despite being the sixth largest county in the state with the largest manufacturing base, the county ranked 42nd in per capita income out of the state’s 92 counties. When figured by household, the level for the county drops to 47th, with per capital household income at $45,806.
In order to lure companies that offer higher-paying jobs, a better-educated work force is just as important as industrial parks and infrastructure, according to local officials.
The Horizon Education Alliance, a non-profit organization created by the county’s six school districts at the behest of business leaders and funded through private donations, is taking the lead in preparing young people for the reality of the 21st century work force.
“In 2012 when the specific six goals were written, one of them included that by the year 2027 there would be a creative, educated and skilled work force,” said Brian Wiebe, executive director of HEA, “And the board asked that we get working on it right away.”
The alliance has formed a variety of initiatives to improve education for children, ranging from toddlers to high school. There is also a Positive Parenting Program to guide parents to good parenting skills and help them provide appropriate nurturing of their children.
But the overall goal of the organization is to elevate the education attainment of the county’s work force in the coming decades. According to state statistics, Elkhart County ranks 85th out of 92 counties in the number of adults with a high school diploma, advanced training or college degrees. Overall, 80.3 percent of the county’s adults are in that category.
The county does better when comparing adults with bachelor’s degrees or post-graduate degrees, ranking 27th with 18.1 percent of adults included in the category.
“What we have to do is look at our culture,” said Jim Kirkton, former Goshen High School principal who is now the HEA’s coordinator of college and career. “So, this takes a lot of communication on how you change that culture into a post-high school culture, not a high school graduation culture. What we are being faced with is the kids who are freshmen in high school now, when they come out, 55 percent of the jobs will require something beyond high school. Our message has to be that high school graduation is just a step toward your career. There is a good chance (a high school diploma) will not be enough.”
What will be enough, perhaps, is college courses taken while still in high school, something local school districts now offer on a limited basis, and post-high school training. Kirkton said apprenticeships with tradesmen, such as plumbers, should be considered as well as the creation of specific career-path courses at the Elkhart Career Center and at Ivy Tech Community College.
He also said the reality is that wages are lower in the county now and that the only way for workers to increase their wages in the future will be to undertake advanced training or post-high school education.
“(After) this last downturn we have not seen growth in wages,” Kirkton said. “Our own research showed that in the 1970s Elkhart County was a premier wage place and in 2010 we were well behind the state of Indiana and the national average. So we have seen our wages drop effectively. That is the message people need to know.”
Up and coming
Kirkton said its fortunate that Goshen College is located in the county. He estimated that about 50 percent of GC’s graduates stay here after graduation, providing a brain-gain to local communities.
Two of the newest entrepreneurs in the county are GC graduate Micah Miller-Eshleman of Ohio and senior Alan Smith of New York, who have created PixelDance, a web design and computer app company. They have taken the first steps to create a company divergent from the RV industry.
The GC guys have set up shop, which is simply two laptops and backpacks for now, at the Goshen Chamber of Commerce’s Launch Pad. The Launch Pad is a bargain for students, who are charged $150 per semester to use the shared-space for startup businesses at the Goshen Chamber of Commerce where 11 other newbie businesses are operating.
They chose web design because that’s what they know best. Smith said he has been writing computer programs since he was 12.
“I think part of it was to play to our strengths. Starting off with what we know best and then getting into other areas,” Miller-Eshleman said. “We both work with a variety of people doing one-on-one help, so we were thinking maybe we could do something with this.”
Miller-Eshleman and Smith took GC’s entrepreneurship class and obtained a start-up grant. They are committed to the business for a year. Beyond that they will evaluate their situation and if they want to stay in Goshen and become part of the county’s diversification effort.
The Horizon Education Alliance website is at heaindiana.org. The PixelDance’s website is located at pixeldance.co. The EDC website is at www.elkhartcountybiz.com