Ed Semmler | South Bend Tribune
The record-setting growth of the RV industry is leading to an unprecedented construction boom as manufacturers and suppliers work to keep up with demand.
According to the RV Industry Association, RV shipments to dealers in May reached 49,241 units, the best May on record and the seventh consecutive month that the industry has set a production record.
And even with those high production numbers, dealers are still having a hard time keeping inventory on their lots, as towable and motorized campers are often sold even before they reach sales lots.
That demand for RVs has resulted in a flurry of construction activity throughout the Elkhart County area as manufacturers and suppliers aim to boost capacity with more space — but space that is designed to maximize production efficiency and might include elements of automation.
“We’re involved in more than $300 million in projects right now,” said Chris Stager, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County. “The work is largely in the RV industry, but there’s some boating in there and portions of the supply chain.”
Stager said the work that is planned or underway is more than double last year’s total and a likely a new high mark for the economic development agency.
Some recently announced or completed projects include: a 500,000-square-foot production, warehouse and distribution facility in Bristol that is being built for MJB Wood Group, a manufacturer and distributor of cabinets, fixtures, furniture, automotive components and other goods and an 800,000-square-foot warehouse, showroom and office complex in Elkhart for Way Interglobal, a supplier of RV appliances, electronics and furnishing for the RV industry.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account
Beyond those projects, Alliance RV is developing three expansions amounting to about 500,000 square feet, Dave Carter & Associates is working on a 68,000-square-foot expansion and General RV Center has opened a 112,000-square-foot inspection center built in Bristol.
Both Bristol Town Manager Mike Yoder and Stager said there are numerous other projects — including new RV companies — that are also moving forward and will likely come to fruition.
Even as new space is being developed — pushing up land costs along the way — one of the biggest issues facing the industry is the need for workers to help build RVs, boats and the parts and accessories needed by those industries.
“We’re importing more than 35,000 workers a day, and many are coming from 45 minutes away,” Stager said. “Unless you want to work in the service industry, we’re the economic hub for the region when it comes to producing jobs.”
Many RV companies have boosted starting pay to $20 and above and are offering comprehensive benefit packages and amenities to win and retain employees, said Stager. Businesses that can’t pay those wages and benefits are generally those struggling to find employees, he added.
Though the coronavirus pandemic further spurred interest in RVing, boating and other outdoor activities, it also resulted in a lot of retirements of Baby Boomers who were working in the industry, further exacerbating the thin supply of labor here and across the country, Stager said.
But even as companies seek to improve efficiencies and incorporate technology into the manufacturing process, the labor shortages likely won’t be disappearing overnight, he added.