More residents key to county’s future success

January 27th, 2017

Challenges outlined at economic organization’s annual meeting

By Barry Rochford | KPC News - The News Sun

Albion -

In 2010, Noble County’s population was 47,476. By 2015, the number of residents had climbed to 47,733.

Two hundred and fifty-seven more people. That makes for an anemic 0.05 percent annual growth rate over a five-year period — certainly no population boom.

Then there’s this: more than one in five workers in Noble County will be eligible to retire sometime during the next 10 years. But because the county has more people moving out of it each year than moving in, filling those jobs will prove to be a significant obstacle to overcome.

Even the county’s rosy unemployment rate, which stood at 3.6 percent in December, carries a cautionary note. Out of the county’s entire labor force of 22,809, only 816 individuals who could be working aren’t. Meanwhile, employers are struggling to find someone — anyone — to fill vacant positions. The problem is particularly acute in manufacturing, where jobs are expected to grow by 10 percent in the next 10 years.

If Noble County — and the region as a whole, because it, too, faces these same challenges — wants to succeed in the future, it will need to attract more residents to take all those jobs, and it will need to do so more quickly.

“We are capable of doing that,” said John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

Sampson offered those words of encouragement at the Noble County Economic Development Corp.’s annual meeting Thursday at the Noble County Public Library in Albion.

He’s optimistic because of the groundwork that’s already been laid in Noble County and throughout the region. Cities and counties that once swore they wouldn’t work together now collaborate and support each other. Partnerships between governments, community organizations, businesses and schools have been forged, strengthened and expanded.

“In looking back, we are well-known in Indiana as being the collaborative region in the state,” Sampson said.

“We did that because there are important challenges this region must confront.”

The biggest challenge stressed at Thursday’s EDC annual meeting was people: attracting more of them while also making sure they have the job skills employers need.

In recent years, the EDC has focused on skills training, tapping the programs of Northeast Indiana Works, connecting with local schools and organizations such as Freedom Academy and Impact Institute, and instigating the Noble County Manufacturing & Education Alliance, Noble Up industry-tailored training and the Manufacturing Entry Training Academy.

“We need a lot of workers, but we need a lot of workers with the right skill sets,” said Gary Gatman, executive vice president of strategic initiatives at Fort Wayne-based Northeast Indiana Works.

One way to get workers is by making investments in communities so they’re more attractive to potential residents. That’s why the region competed for and won $42 million through the state’s Regional Cities Initiative. That’s why the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority, which oversees that Regional Cities grant, was formed. And that’s why Noble County leaders have been working to advance their own projects to the RDA board — something that could happen as soon as next month.

So far, the RDA board had awarded about $26 million in Regional Cities funding, spurring a total investment in quality-of-life projects across northeast Indiana of nearly $170 million.

Sampson said Noble County and the region must make those investments because they’re competing not just with communities in the United States, but around the world.

“We have got to be nimble and better and execute well in a global marketplace,” he said.

It’s up to the people of Noble County and northeast Indiana, working collaboratively, to do that, Sampson told those attending the EDC’s annual meeting.

“This will not be solved by the state or the federal government. It will be solved if we just get our act together and meet this issue eye to eye.”