The Future of America’s Economy Looks a Lot Like Elkhart, Indiana
High-school students around here skip college for factory jobs that offer great pay and benefits. For-hire signs sprout like roadside weeds. And workers are so flush that car dealers can’t keep new pickups on the lot.
At the same time, the strains are showing. Employers can’t hang on to employees, and house prices are zooming. The worker shortage prompted a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant to offer $150 signing bonuses. A McDonald’s failed to open for lunch last fall because managers couldn’t corral enough hands at $8 an hour to serve the lines waiting at the door.
From Bust to Boomtown: Life in a Comeback City
Elkhart, Ind., was once the poster child for the recession. Now the economy is booming thanks to strong sales of RVs, the main industry here. And that's created a new challenge: a shortage of qualified workers. Photo: David Kasnic for The Wall Street Journal
No place in the U.S. has seen a labor-market turnaround like this metropolitan region of 110,000 workers, a mix of blue-collar whites, Mexican immigrants and Amish. “It’s like 1955,” said Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist. “If you show up and have minimal literacy skills, you can find a job here.”
Elkhart has unique economic conditions—its good fortune is tied to a central role in the revival of the recreational-vehicle market, where neither automation nor foreign competition is a threat. But as the U.S. turns the page on a decade of postcrisis underemployment, the region points to a future of labor shortages and fights over workers.
The jobless rate in the Elkhart region plunged from 20% in March 2009, worst in the U.S., to just over 2% in January, half the national average. The local unemployment rate is actually closer to zero: some 9,500 jobs have no takers. Each day, about 25,000 workers commute into Elkhart city, population 50,000. A county economic development agency is hunting for job candidates across Appalachia and as far as Puerto Rico.