Fighting Irish Battle Elkhart Labor Shortage

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Just one of many to announce expansion plans in 2017, Middlebury-based Grand Design RV is building two new facilities and expects to add up to 450 jobs. Just one of many to announce expansion plans in 2017, Middlebury-based Grand Design RV is building two new facilities and expects to add up to 450 jobs.

Elkhart County’s RV industry is on the upside of its tale of redemption; after the recession brought the region “down to our knees”—as one company executive described it—the area is now posting record RV sales numbers and announcing expansions at a furious rate. But the growth isn’t without hiccups. A low unemployment rate in Elkhart County, coupled with high demand for more workers, is creating a labor shortage; reports estimate the gap from 8,000 to 20,000 workers. A Notre Dame program wants to help the region be fully staffed for its revival and will use the science of data to analyze the problem and uncover solutions.

Economic leaders in the RV Capital of the World say nearly 50 percent of jobs in Elkhart County are in the manufacturing sector, and of those, some 30,000 are specific to the RV industry. And the number is growing; 2017 saw a barrage of expansions at RV manufacturers, with many announcements touting hundreds of new jobs. Lippert Components, Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jason Lippert told Inside Indiana Business in August that the company had 500 job openings.

With the county unemployment rate hovering around 2 percent, Grand Design RV President and Chief Executive Officer Don Clark says “labor is tight” for RV manufacturers and suppliers, and that the region needs more people in its workforce.

To help the region find answers, the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County tapped South Bend-based enFocus, Inc. to analyze the county’s labor market and is commissioning the study. enFocus is a nonprofit fellowship program, powered mostly by Notre Dame graduate and master’s students. The group uses data and technology and provides consulting services to help companies, nonprofits and regions overcome challenges.

“We’re looking at the anecdotal evidence of things we’re hearing about the [Elkhart County] labor market and actually putting some data behind it,” says enFocus Inc. Chief Strategy Officer Lex Dennis. “The labor shortage is one thing you hear, also turnover rates, and the fact that a lot of the workers don’t live in Elkhart County. These are all issues we’re trying to explore; we want to understand what’s at the core of them.”

The first analysis is a labor shed study, which could help address the disproportionate number of workers living outside the area. Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Kyle Hannon says about 29,000 people drive into the county daily for work.

“The labor shed looks at the major employers and where employees live and tracks the distribution of employees in and outside of the county—and the most logical ways for them to get to and from work,” says Dennis. “This can give us some insight into why folks who are working in Elkhart County aren’t living there.”

enFocus will also deploy employers’ needs assessments, which could uncover specific educational or training needs and address the sourcing of talent. Finally, the team will examine barriers to employment, which could help employers create tools to reduce turnover.

“We don’t want to just study this to death; you can slip into that mindset,” says Dennis. “We’ll take what we find throughout the project and convene major employers, school leaders and organizations that provide services to the workforce. We want to convene all those folks around the data we dig up and start to plan solutions.”

To immerse itself in the local community, enFocus recently opened a location at Launch Elkhart, in addition to its first office on Notre Dame’s campus. Two enFocus fellows, one with an MBA and one enrolled in the university’s master’s program for commercializing IP, will lead the labor project. A senior fellow will manage it, and a longtime Elkhart banking executive will mentor the team. Ultimately, the group is aiming to uncover ways to increase per person income and the county’s population.

“The most important part is that we engage employers, educational institutions, service organizations and the municipal government to understand how this data can be used to benefit workers and employers,” says Dennis. “We don’t have all the answers, and there’s a lot of power in convening a lot of people who have ideas—and we can help see them through.” 

Dennis says the new Elkhart location helps enFocus reach its full potential in the county.
For this project, Dennis says enFocus is especially interested in talent attraction and retention.
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