Cutting Edge Machine and Tool employee Kellie Anglemyer of Goshen punches commands into the CNC machine she operates to make pins for wheelchair lifts Thursday morning. CNHI staff photo by Jay Young
Cutting Edge Machine and Tool employee Kellie Anglemyer of Goshen punches commands into the CNC machine she operates to make pins for wheelchair lifts Thursday morning. CNHI staff photo by Jay Young
GOSHEN — Business is booming for Indiana manufacturers and as a result unemployment has dwindled to less than 3 percent in 71 of the state's 92 counties, creating a worker shortage.

"Elkhart County just dipped below 2 percent unemployment rate," said Mark Dobson, CEO of the county's economic development corporation. "I don't know how you do that. We have always considered 3.5 percent full employment."

Elkhart County has risen from the ashes of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Back then the county had the highest jobless rate in the nation of 20 percent in March 2009.

In May, Dobson recounted to the Nappanee City Council how far the local economy has rebuilt, telling the council the worker shortage in the county amounted to 20,000 unfilled positions. April statistics from Indiana Department of Workforce Development show the county had 104,000 jobs that month.

Elkhart, LaGrange, Dubois and Kosciusko counties were tied for the lowest jobless rates in the state, 1.9 percent. Vermillion County had the highest unemployment rate in the state in April at 4.3 percent, and even that number was below the national rate of 4.4 percent that month.

George Robertson, CEO of the Kosciusko Economic Development Corp., said there is a worker shortage statewide.

Robertson said while the jobless rate gives a snapshot of current employment, it doesn't explain the needs of employers. He said the two top skills Indiana manufacturers need workers to have are welding knowledge and computer numerical controlled machining skills.

"It's a little tight on general labor where no skill is required," Robertson said, "But that is not the problem. It is the skilled workforce."

Trying to hire

In the unincorporated community of New Paris in Elkhart County, Jenny and Dave Berkey operate Cutting Edge Machine and Tool.

"We are about 90 people now and we need another 10," Jenny Berkey said.

She said it has been tough finding skilled workers. Half of the jobs open at Cutting Edge are for CNC machine operators, one is for a CNC set-up person and four skilled assembly positions are open.

In an attempt to fill the jobs, the Berkeys took the unusual step of placing job openings on local billboards and also mailing out 11,000 postcard-style announcements in a general mail sweep.

"There are so many jobs out there there are not enough people," she said of the hiring initiative. "So all the employers need to get creative at how to get the word out and let people know they are hiring."

Companies like Cutting Edge are vital to the economy, according to Berkey. Her staff visits local manufacturers who need parts made and rely on machine shops to make parts to keep their products moving out the door.

"The customers definitely need our skills," she said.

Advocating solutions

The Indiana Manufacturing Association, which represents 1,400 Hoosier companies, is working with state officials and members to find solutions to the skilled worker shortage, according to Stephanie Wells, who deals with the issue for the association.

"If you can't fill positions currently, and you want to expand or add on, it is going to be a problem for us," she said of what her members are saying.

The association this year pushed for legislation to help in the long term, including Senate Bill 198. That law passed and will establish 15 career explorer pilot programs for eighth-graders.

"We know our industry has a perception problem, especially with the kids, so we support more career counseling education for kids in high schools and middle schools," Wells said. "Kids need to know what jobs are in their community."

If more Hoosiers don't enter the manufacturing fields in the future, or if the state's companies can't draw enough new skilled workers to the state, the IMA's "State of Hoosier Manufacturing 2016" survey findings could come true, according to Wells.

Seventy-seven percent of IMA members who responded to the survey forecast that in the next three to five years they will experience moderate to serious shortages of skilled workers.

The impact of the shortage could even be longer, according to Wells.

"We estimate that unless things change we won't be able to fill 60 percent of the needed positions over the next decade or so."

Next year alone the association estimates there will be 10,000 to 15,000 job openings in Indiana manufacturing companies.

"If you can't fill them that is bad for Indiana manufacturing, bad for the economy and bad for everyone," Wells said.

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