ELKHART — The leaders of the Elkhart County Economic Development Corp. warned elected officials Wednesday against letting a shortage of quality workers creep up on them.
President Mark Dobson spoke to current and newly elected officials from the county and from cities including Elkhart, Nappanee, Middlebury and Bristol about how the EDC could help them attract and retain businesses in their communities.
One of the biggest concerns now among both existing employers and potential new ones is lack of workforce, said Dobson and Chris Stager, vice president of retention and expansion.
“When you look at site selection factors, the availability of skilled labor is more important than real estate now,” Dobson said. “Without a labor pool, they write off communities... I’ve heard them say we have a hyper-crazy workforce, they’re dedicated, we just don’t have enough of them. They’re impressed with the quality, but quantity is an issue.”
He said they should take it as a warning sign when an Elkhart business creates jobs in another county, as when Lippert Components announced 125 new jobs in New Haven in 2015 with its acquisition of Signature Seating. The town had just seen 400 jobs lost with the closures of Vera Bradley and Parker Hannifin.
Dobson compared the trend to a pot of frogs on slow boil, and remarked, “I feel like there are about to be some delicious frog legs in Elkhart County.”
Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese said he’s heard the same thing from company representatives.
“I spoke this week with a potential employer, and I told him if they need anything from City Hall to let me know,” Neese said. “He said, ‘I need employees.’”
“And we need places for them to live,” observed Mike Yoder, Elkhart County commissioner.
Besides addressing the need for housing, the group also discussed ways to attract potential workers with quality of place initiatives and investments in telecom infrastructure. Dobson said the EDC has even put up billboards in other states announcing “We have jobs.”
He also said when evaluating places to move to, companies like to see that communities have a plan to train the future workforce while also addressing the needs of the current one.
Dobson and Stager addressed some ways the EDC has focused on worker education in recent years, from sponsoring Manufacturing Week in the county last year which introduced 635 eighth-graders to area manufacturers, to bringing the Leadership Training Series in 2015 delivered by the Purdue Technical Assistance Program. The series looked at challenges that both new and experienced company leaders encounter.
Dobson also encouraged the group to make an appeal to young residents to stay in or return to the communities they grew up in, since there’s more opportunity there than they realize.
“Every time you’re around the youth, remind them that we want them back,” he said. “Be like the Amish, go on a rumspringa, see the world – but come back.”