Elkhart County workforce plan will follow path of hurricanes

There’s a plan in place to aggressively and immediately attack Elkhart County’s labor shortage.

The plan calls for filling open local positions with folks who now live far away.

“We’ve got to start telling Elkhart County’s story outside of our region. I think, you know, the viewership knows things are going really well here but I wonder do people in southern Indiana, or West Virginia, or Florida or Texas, do they know how great things are in this region?” asked Mark Dobson, Executive Director of Elkhart County’s Economic Development Corporation.

In August, Elkhart County had the lowest unemployment rate in the State of Indiana (3 percent) and an estimated number of unfilled positions as high as 20,000.

“We have about 140 direct labor people right now,” said Susan Droptiny, Human Resources Director at Elkhart Plastics, “We could fill 20 more positions if we had the workers.”

Yet, Elkhart County’s problems certainly pale in comparison to hurricane ravaged areas of the United States: The kind of places where Elkhart County’s problem may actually sound more like a golden opportunity.

“In the case of the natural disaster areas, they're probably tired of it. They've been through several times. There's got to come a time when you think you know it’s time for a new look, so you know our thought is they may be willing to relocate,” said Dobson.

It’s the basic premise behind a $95,000 workforce attraction plan that would tell Elkhart County’s story to faraway places with high unemployment using billboards, radio spots, and social media.

“In some of these areas, say Houston, Texas, if you're walking into the unemployment office and you have your smart device with you'll actually get a pop up on your smart device that says, check out Elkhart County jobs,” said Mark Dobson.

The campaign would also target those employed in the coal industry. “These are people who are probably looking forward saying the industry I'm in, may not be here in five to ten years, it's time to adapt my skills and maybe go elsewhere where the jobs are.”

There’s already a long term plan in place to address the worker shortage. Nearly 2,000 Elkhart County eighth graders have toured factories this week and last.

But there’s also a feeling that something more drastic and immediate needs to be done.

“Doing nothing isn't an option. Businesses look at the community whether it be the economic development corporation or elected officials and say if you're not going to do anything about this, we don't have any other option but to go elsewhere,” said Dobson. “We have to have workforce to produce our product if you're not trying to help us with workforce what do you expect us to do?”

While a big part of Dobson’s job has traditionally been to try and lure new jobs to town, the labor shortage has kept him on the defensive.

“There have been some fairly significant announcements this year by
Elkhart County companies in the surrounding region,” Dobson said. “When they start pushing out and looking at Allen County or counties that are several counties away from the economic shed of the RV industry, that gives us heartburn, that tells us we’re not doing our job.”

Dobson says he hopes the Workforce Attraction Plan campaign will start in about two weeks.