Commissioners hear update on EDC's work

 

ALBION — COVID-19 threw a wrench into the industrial machine, but the gears are turning again and the Noble County Economic Development Corp. sees several positives ahead for the county.

Executive Director Gary Gatman, who took over lead of the county’s economic development organization in February, gave a general update to the Noble County Commissioners Monday about what the EDC has been up to and what’s ahead.

COVID-19 sent a shockwave through the northeast Indiana economy. Noble County hit nearly 28% unemployment in April, with that falling to 16.2% in May as of county labor force estimated released by the state Monday. Manufacturing, which makes up about half of Noble County’s workforce, took a large amount of those COVID-19 job losses.

But since the state’s stay-at-home order was pulled back on May 4, Gatman said local business has rebounded well and many companies are back to sticking “help wanted” signs out in front of their plants.

“It’s been rough, but there is a lot of good news on the horizon and there are a lot of companies that are ready to grow, expand,” Gatman said.

Prior to COVID-19, workforce — or more accurately the lack of an available workforce — was one of the biggest challenges facing Noble County business and Gatman expects that will be the No. 1 issue in the recovery, too.

Many firms have cut training budgets as a financial savings due to COVID-19, so finding ways to assist firms in locating and training workers for the jobs that are available will be an ongoing component of the EDC’s role in the future.

Gatman also reported that Noble County has put in information for four site-selection queries from the state and also had two site visits from firms looking for a new location.

One of those was a visit to the Kendallville area for a firm looking to bring about 200 workers to the area, Gatman said, with the other being a site visit in Ligonier.

Small business also remains a focus and is an area where Gatman has said he wants to place renewed emphasis on in his leadership role. As a response to COVID-19, the EDC launched the Shop Noble online portal, a buy-local campaign to help promote and generate new business for area businesses.

“We’re getting good traction with the website,” Gatman said of the popularity of that effort so far.

Noble County was also included in the inaugural small business COVID-19 relief grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs and is ready to distribute funds from that $95,250 award.

“Our first 18 grants should be going out here soon,” Gatman said.

As for challenges in the Noble County economy, Gatman identified some lingering issues that will take more than just local fixes to accomplish.

Affordable housing remains a limiting factor in Noble County, with little housing development happening and few places for new residents to move into the county. Gatman said that, in some firms, 40-50% of the labor is commuting from outside Noble County.

“We need to have places for those people to live,” Gatman said.

Broadband availability remains a major issue for not just Noble County but rural communities across the state. State officials have been pledging new resources to rural broadband projects, but high-speed internet hasn’t show up in many places around the region yet.

Affordable childcare remains one need many company human resource managers are hearing from their workers. Noble County and many rural communities have few child care options available, so increasing capacity of the system to care for youngsters during the day while their parents at work remains a big issue.

And, lastly, ensuring the pipeline of workers and training to grow new leaders in industry is a want for business. Gatman gave the example that just because someone is a good machinist doesn’t necessarily make them a good supervisor, so programs to identify and skill up those good workers to make them more valuable will be an ongoing effort.

Commissioner Gary Leatherman brought up the recent shift in thinking from the sentiment that college education was the key to success to a new form that college is great for some, but that there are many other high-paying, good jobs even without a two-year or four-year degree.

“Is there a way to measure the response you’re getting from schools and Impact Institute?” Leatherman asked.

There is, Gatman said, and it’s been reflected in not just enrollment at Impact — welding and machining classes are bursting at the seams in terms of capacity — but schools are doing much more to educate students about career opportunities that don’t require college.

“There are a tremendous amount of opportunities that do not require burdensome student debt,” Gatman said.

As an example, he tells the story about his stepson, who started at a local manufacturer driving a forklift for about $16 per hour, moved up to a new position with some training earning over $20 and has since taken a third step up to a quality control job at about $26 per hour — all within two and a half years.

Schools and industries are working to partner to start introducing students to manufacturing and industry in elementary school, then, as they get older, building that message of what types of jobs are available, what kind of skills are needed and what kind of life they can have working those jobs.

“I think it’s really good to get that interest started early,” he said. “The pathways in this county are remarkable.”