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2017 calls for more skilled labor, collaboration

January 10th, 2017

By Kelly Lynch | KPC News - The Star

Low unemployment rates, quality of life and collaborative partnerships will be important factors in maintaining and boosting the region’s economy in 2017, say local directors of economic development.

Their goals for the new year are to retain and maintain the relationships with the manufacturing industry that are already in place while encouraging workforce development and new, diverse business. It’s a model most have held to since the recession hit in 2008.

To continue this growth and sustainability in Steuben County, which is at a 3.3 percent unemployment rate, Steuben County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Isaac Lee will be pushing to draw in and educate more skilled workers for the existing industry in his area.

“We’re seeing a population snag. We currently have positions open and available, but we can’t find enough people to fill them. We also have a skills gap element that we’re dealing with,” Lee said. “It’s not a new problem. It’s a problem that’s been around. It’s becoming more of a relevant headline topic: What are we doing to attract populations and families to northeast Indiana?”

Usually this would mean creating a better quality of life to attract new workers to the area, but with its amount of parks, lakes and recreational activities, Steuben County isn’t lacking in extracurricular amenities. So instead, he’ll be conducting more site visits to industries to ask what they need and how the corporation can assist, as well as providing training courses to get bodies into the CNC and welding work that has such vacancies.

While DeKalb County may not have the strong natural amenities Steuben enjoys, DeKalb County Economic Development Partnership Executive Director Anton King believes the county has a lot to offer to potential investors. This includes a transportation system that includes Interstate 69, six state highways, railroad lines and an airport; a regional health care network and a low cost of living.

King is only a week into his new role, but his priorities focus on diversifying jobs in a county that already has a strong automotive presence and promoting collaboration between agencies so all are moving toward the same goals. In order to bring in new workers and to keep younger residents and millennials in the area, he hopes to attract more tech-based companies and small businesses to provide more employment options, such as Auburn’s expanding Tempus Technologies.

“Collaboration between different agencies and organizations within the community, just to have one forward motion, to work together in order to obtain quality-of-life things and workforce development and have a positive impact on the region … makes a world of difference,” King said. “I want to be able to push forward, put DeKalb county on the map even further, make us a destination for companies to invest and do business.”

Collaborating with local colleges and schools and utilizing those partnerships to teach skills training will be vital, Lee said.

King will spend part of his first year forming and maintaining relationships in manufacturing by meeting with and touring each facility to learn how the corporation can assist each one.

But these collaborations can reach outside of the county to adjoining areas, especially in working with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, an economic development organization that represents 11 area counties.

Lee said with how close the nearby counties’ industries are to his own, each understands that the success of a neighbor can help its own economy. The commute time of an average worker is 30-35 minutes, plenty of time for a DeKalb County worker to get to a job in Steuben County or vice versa, Lee said. So while he encourages growth in his own area, he also hopes for prosperity in northeast Indiana as a whole.

Both directors also said the recent presidential election has played a role in building confidence for the new year.

It’s routine for businesses and industry to hold their breath during election season to see how to proceed with investments in the new year, and Lee is glad multiple projects that were waiting can now move forward.

“During elections, some of these projects get put on hold because of tax incentives and other things politically driven,” Lee said. “With that behind us, in some of our tours and visits I’ve already had … some of the preliminary conversations are centered on being ready to do projects.”

King is optimistic about the transition of power to President-elect Donald Trump, hoping that the higher stock market prices and focus on economic investment and business tax incentives during his campaign continue to remain strong.

“In the last month, there’s been an emphasis on keeping jobs in the U.S., and I think that benefits us,” King said.