By ROGER SCHNEIDER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Local manufacturers have hundreds of job openings. Now they need the workers to fill them.
As the economy continues to inch upward and consumer spending rises, demand for products of all kinds is spurring a need for more workers.
“We have positions that have opened up. We need commercial sewing operators and we need people to do assembly and upholstering,” said Steve Yoder, vice president for human resources at Wieland Designs in Goshen.
The company manufactures seat covers for the airline, automobile and furniture industries.
To attract workers to the plant, Wieland partnered with the worker recruiting company Specialty Staffing Solutions to hold a job fair Saturday morning.
“Right now we could use 10 to 15 sewing operators and seven to eight assembly and upholstery people,” Yoder said Friday before the fair.
Saturday morning, as Yoder and Kelli Pursley of Specialty Staffing Solutions stood at the door of the plant to greet prospective employees with smiles, handshakes and tasty treats, dozens of workers were hunkered down nearby at sewing machines and working overtime. They were busy sewing bright blue seatcovers for a national airline company.
Yoder said commercial sewing companies in Elkhart County are worried about a gap between their needs and the lack of sewing skills in the pool of available workers.
“If we look at the supply and demand economy, we are running a deficit of those who have the skill sets by 220 to 500 people,” he said.
He said that estimate comes from statistics supplied by WorkOne, the state’s employment agency.
Yoder said that while sewing was once a common skill taught in high schools, many young people no longer learn how to sew. He said he has been talking to local educators, state agencies and others in an effort to increase training opportunities.
For those workers who have some sewing training and possess a desire to learn, it takes the Wieland staff six to 10 months of training to get the new hire’s skill level up to an acceptable level, according to Yoder.
“When you are making a high-end seat cover for a high-end Ford Mustang Cobra, there is very little room for error,” he said.
Job creation tops 9,000
In June 2007 the nation’s economy was steaming full-speed ahead. As consumers grabbed up luxury goods of all kinds, the dominant recreational vehicle industry in Elkhart County had trouble finding enough workers to build its products. During the heyday of June 2007 the county’s employment grew to 132,200 people. Many of those were driving into the county from southern Michigan and surrounding Indiana counties.
The recession hit the RV industry hard and jobs and companies disappeared quickly. In January of this year the county’s employed workers numbered 107,700, which was actually a 4.6 percent boost over January 2010. But as the national economy continued its agonizingly slow growth, Elkhart County had a spurt of job creation.
There were 9,900 jobs added in the county from January to May, according to Indiana Workforce Development statistics.
Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Elkhart County Economic Development Corp., said her agency is working to lure manufacturers to the county and retain those already here.
She said the EDC in 2011 recorded more than 1,800 new jobs being announced through the agency and more than $115 million in new investment in the county’s companies.
Others are growing
Wieland is not the only local company seeking workers. Winnebago in Middlebury and Utilimaster and Monaco RV in Wakarusa, are seeking hundreds of workers between them. It’s a trend that began last year.
When Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa wanted to expand its product base beyond its traditional motorhome offerings, the company acquired towable RV manufacturer SunnyBrook RV in Middlebury. That acquisition put Winnebago’s financial power behind the company, which has been able to expand its product line and sign many new dealers. That business plan has led to hiring at the plant.
“I guess you could attribute it to several different factors,” said Fred Hershberger about the hiring. He is national sales manager at Winnebago’s Middlebury operation. “We have had a tremendous amount of growth over the last year. Our production has doubled over what we were doing at this time last year.”
Hershberger said that during the past 18 months all the company’s products have been redone and many dealers have been added, increasing the company’s sales opportunities.
He said Sunnybrook has added more than 100 employees and is looking for more. “We expect this growth to continue,” he said.
Along the east side of Ind. 19 in Wakarusa the Utilimaster complex stretches out like an Army base. The aging factory buildings are a hodgepodge of structures that were added over the years as the need arose. Out front of all those buildings are parking lots filled with workers’ vehicles. And further out toward the highway is a portable sign that offers 150 jobs, and hope, for the county’s unemployed.
Utilimaster builds custom bodies for delivery trucks of all kinds. UPS and FedEx are two of the company’s good customers. Because of growing contracts, Utilimaster needs workers.
John Forbes, company president, said Utilimaster has added 200 workers so far and is seeking more.
“Our business normally has a second half of the year seasonality,” Forbes said. “Part of it (the hiring) would be the normal season cycle for us. On top of that our business is growing for sure. That is a positive.”
He said the company needs general assembly workers and painters to add to its 800-person work force.
The company is preparing to move from its current collection of plants to a new facility near Bristol where operations can be combined under one roof and the manufacturing and assembly processes made more efficient. That move will take about a year to complete, according to Forbes.
Still a need
Wakarusa and Nappanee were at the center of the nation’s recession in 2008 and 2009 after Monaco Coach Corp. folded and 1,400 local jobs were lost. The once-bankrupt recreational vehicle maker was sold to Navistar International. The new Monaco reopened a plant in Wakarusa and is in the process of adding 400 workers to replace the 400 who lost their jobs when the company moved its Coburg, Org. operation to Wakarusa.
Despite the influx of new jobs, there is still a need to help families with utility bills and food, according to Hank Whelan, who oversees the Open Door food bank in Nappanee. The food bank covers all the Wa-Nee school district, which includes Wakarusa.
“They are pretty steady,” Whelan said of the 150 or so people stopping in for help each month. “It seems we have the same people coming in each month.”
One of the problems these people are facing, according to Whelan, is underemployment. “Their wages don’t quite meet their needs, even if they are working. You have to be pretty skilled at something to get top wage,” he said.
The jobs being added at Monaco may help.
Stephen Schrier, spokesman for Monaco, said the company has almost completed hiring the 400 workers needed to take over the Coburg tasks. But more jobs are coming.
“We are looking to add about another 100,” he said.
“We are looking right now at general assembly workers, painters, welders and certainly anyone with previous RV experience or general manufacturing or automotive skills,” he said.
The RV industry is continuing to maintain a gain this year in units produced. The Recreational Industry Association announced Friday that shipments of RVs in May were up 4.9 percent over May 2011. The industry is also projecting a yearly gain of 6 percent.
Schrier said his company is more conservative on the growth estimate, forecasting a 4 or 5 percent gain.
“But growth is growth and we are glad to see that,” Schrier said.