Workforce, diversity drive recession recovery

NAPPANEE, Ind. (AP) — Northern Indiana communities hit hard by the Great Recession are rebounding with some key lessons about the economy and their workforces in hand.

Elkhart County’s unemployment rate jumped to nearly 19 percent in 2009 as the recreational vehicle industry that dominated the area’s manufacturers saw orders plummet. Though the RV industry is recovering, many of its jobs are gone for good in places like Syracuse and Nappanee.

Syracuse, a town of 2,800 people, had about 1,400 manufacturing jobs before 2007. It has about half that now. Nappanee also was hit hard.

“It was fairly devastating to our area here,” Syracuse Town Manager Henry DeJulia told The Goshen News.

Things are looking up, though, due in large part to a better understanding of the need for a diverse industrial base and an educated workforce, community leaders say.

Unemployment has dropped sharply, and Elkhart County is now widely touted for its job growth. Local companies are putting money into worker training to help employees improve their skills and advance their careers, said Nappanee Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jeff Kitson.

That’s leading to a stronger workforce made up of people who want to stay for longer periods of time, he said.

“When you have employers who are locally based and they are tied to the community, their employees see that,” Kitson said. “A lot of our employers are very generous to the community … and their employees see that, which makes them want to live here and raise a family.”

A similar situation is happening in Syracuse.

Tammy Cotton, executive director for the Syracuse-Wawasee Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s WorkOne centers are working with chambers and schools to educate current and future workers. Wawasee High School will implement a program in the fall that is more career technology oriented, she said.

WorkOne will also implement Jobs for America’s Graduates at Wawasee this fall. Students may get nine hours of credit for college, and officials hope the program sparks an interest in taking more classes.

“Good things are happening, which is encouraging and exciting,” Cotton said. “We need to not keep doing what we’ve been doing. Everybody’s realized the issue and everybody’s working together to fix it.

“It’s kind of fun and interesting at the same time to see that things are getting done.”

Civic leaders also are looking at more diverse areas to expand their economic bases. Tourism could be a key factor in some areas, including Shipshewana.

Gary Zehr, executive director of the Shipshewana Retail Merchants Association, said the town spends thousands of dollars marketing itself and has trained residents in customer service.

“We work really hard to create an experience for our visitors,” he said.

The efforts are instilling confidence that the region could withstand hard times if — or when — they hit again.

“We feel much better to handle an economic downtown than four or five years ago,” Kitson said.

Information from: The Goshen News

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