Elkhart County's job market is tight. Soon, Amazon will need another 1,000 workers here – South Bend Tribune


ELKHART — Even an unemployment rate among the lowest in the nation hasn’t been enough to deter Amazon from building two distribution facilities here.
The larger of the two — a multi-story regional hub — already is springing out of the ground along the north side of the Indiana Toll Road between County Road 17 and County Road 19. The second is set to break ground later this year near the Elkhart Municipal Airport. 
And both — representing an investment of well over $200 million — will require about 1,000 employees when they start to come on line in 2023, competing against RV and boat-building companies that also have had a strong need for workers since the economy emerged from the pandemic-induced recession in 2020. 
Jobs on the way:Elkhart County wins more than $200 million in new Amazon projects, could create 1,000 jobs
With demand continuing strong for RVs and boats, employers have improved wages, benefits and even working conditions to get the employees they need. In February, Elkhart County’s seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate stood at 1.7%, compared to 2.7% for the state and 3.8% for the nation
“This is not a new phenomenon that we need employees,” said Chris Stager, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County. “We’ve been averaging 1,900 new job announcements per year for the past 10 years.” 
And for years, the many RV and boat-building factories and suppliers in the area have had to draw an estimated 35,000 workers each day from six surrounding counties within a 45- to 60-mile radius to help fill those jobs, said Stager. 
That need to attract workers from surrounding communities will likely continue when Amazon begins to hire for its new operations within the next year. 
Stager said the company will be able to attract workers from a wide circle because of the Toll Road and other major transportation arteries that allow for reasonably easy commutes. But it will also likely draw some employees from existing businesses in the region because of better scheduling, pay, growth opportunities or even the work environment. 
Amazon, for one, doesn’t seem overly concerned about filling the positions. After all, it already has more than 24,000 full- and part-time employees in Indiana. 
With average starting pay of $18 and a comprehensive benefits package for full-time workers, the company believes it will be able to secure the employees it needs to operate the massive 800,000-square-foot fulfillment center along the Toll Road and the smaller delivery station planned near the Elkhart airport. 
“We’re proud of the great jobs and competitive pay and benefits we offer from day one in addition to the long-term career growth opportunities we’ve invested to expand education and skills training benefits for our U.S. workforce,” Andre Woodson, the company’s regional spokesman, said via email. 
“Amazon is proud of this job creation and we also think employees will be excited to grow their career at Amazon in the Elkhart community,” he added. 
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While Amazon is confident in its ability to find workers, the added demand will likely be felt by other businesses since thousands of Hoosiers — like those in other states — left the workforce during the pandemic, said Andrew Butters, an assistant professor at the IU Kelley School of Business. 
“The labor force participation rate was 62.1% in February,” said Butters, referring to the percentage of work-eligible Hoosiers either employed or looking for jobs. “Prior to the pandemic, it was 64.3%. That’s a dramatic movement in a short time frame.” 
Though there’s been some modest gains in the labor force, Butters and other experts are doubtful that all of the people who left their jobs will return to the workforce. Some retired, some are working from home and some went back for additional schooling or training, among other things.  
Thousands of working-aged Hoosiers have also died during the pandemi
“Firms will need to be innovative and creative to fill the slots,” said Butters. 
So barring a recession, competition could remain fierce for workers for the foreseeable future, ultimately forcing employers to look for new ways to get things done. Hours or services might be reduced by a restaurant or hotel, but they could also look for labor-saving devices. 
Automated floor cleaners now roam some big-box retailers and self-checkout lines continue to grow in popularity.  
Automation and robotics are being increasingly adopted by RV and boat-building factories in Elkhart County, especially among businesses that are key suppliers to those industries, said Stager. “We have to look at ways to improve efficiencies, and we’re seeing a lot more of that.” 
More automation and robotics allow the area to maintain or even expand output because it allows machines to perform tasks that were once performed by workers, whose wages can then rise because of the productivity gains. 
That’s what makes the Amazon project so exciting to Stager and others. 
About half of the $200 million the company is spending here will be devoted to robotics and automation equipment so that products can be stored, moved and loaded onto trucks while minimizing labor and the possibility of injuries. 
Bringing those advanced material-handling capabilities to Elkhart County is important, but so are the 1,000 jobs in a relatively recession-proof business that’s pretty far removed from the county’s focus on manufacturing. 
“Both,” he said, “are important to our long-term economic diversity goals.”

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