You can't throw a stick in Fort Wayne without hitting a “Help Wanted” sign, and more are popping up every day.
Although the worker shortage might seem sudden, it didn't develop overnight. When strategic business futurist Roger Herman visited the city in 2004, he urged companies to position themselves to survive an upcoming worker shortfall by becoming “an employer of choice.”
Economic development officials in the past decade and a half have focused on a slightly different mission. They've set out to make northeast Indiana a region of choice.
State and local officials have invested millions in projects designed to make the region a more attractive place to “live, work and play,” to use their favorite phrase. The theory is that employers are drawn to communities that offer an abundance of skilled workers.
In other words, if you build the workforce, the jobs will come.
Their work also included improving K-12 education and launching programs that teach adults the skills employers need.
Despite their best efforts, however, the worker shortage is here – and it's severe.
A regional effort
John Sampson came face-to-face with the fallout from the worker shortage a few weeks ago.
The former president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership was about seventh in line to order at a local fast casual restaurant. After waiting his turn, he approached the counter and was told the understaffed kitchen was too backed up to accept even one more order.
“They actually sent me away,” he said, laughing in disbelief.
The coronavirus pandemic deserves some blame for the hiring challenges companies are facing, but the region was reporting really low unemployment rates before the pandemic struck last year. Employers in various industries were adding jobs and struggling to fill them.
Brad Bishop, executive director of OrthoWorx, said it's impossible to know how much worse the worker shortage would be now if multiple efforts to address the looming problem weren't made over the past decade and a half.
Sampson was among the economic development professionals who have steered the region's efforts to attract and retain talent. He was hired to help launch the Regional Partnership in early 2006. At that time, Sampson said, employers were talking about the existing workforce's ability level, “not so much about the volume” of available workers.
Northeast Indiana's decision to approach economic development as a region brought an end to counties openly competing with each other to attract corporate investment.
Officials embraced the idea that a win for a neighboring county was a win for all. Studies showing commuting patterns drove home the point that employers' workforces don't live in just one county.
The region's newly cooperative attitude came on the heals of former Gov. Mitch Daniels' Strategic Skills Initiative, which was launched in 2005. The $23 million workforce development program asked employers in northeast Indiana's 11-county region to identify occupations most critical to their competitiveness and skills needed for those jobs.
The goal, Sampson said, was to train all workers to increase their skills by one level. The effort required cooperation on several fronts.
Kathleen Randolph, who retired last year as president and CEO of Northeast Indiana Works, said her former agency followed the governor's lead some 15 years ago.
The nonprofit organization's board changed its mission in 2007 to focus on developing, attracting and retaining talent that meets the needs of area industries.
Before that, the agency supported whatever whims job seekers wanted to pursue. If an Indiana Jones fan walked in wanting to be an archaeologist, for example, Randolph's staff helped find the necessary courses.
“We often paid for training for people where jobs really didn't exist,” she said, adding that clients were disappointed when their degrees didn't lead to paying jobs. “And we were squandering precious resources.”
Career counselors never want to denigrate someone's dream, she said, but they want to help job seekers be realistic about options.
“That was a very, very significant shift for us,” Randolph said.
After its mission change, Northeast Indiana Works partnered with Ivy Tech Community College, the former IPFW and others to create credential programs that were recognized, respected and in demand by the region's employers. A credential affirms a worker can perform certain skills, making it easier to move from one employer to another.
Bishop, who recently announced plans to retire from OrthoWorx, has spent the past 11 years leading the nonprofit focused on attracting and developing talent to support Kosciusko and Whitley counties' thriving orthopedics industry. The effort has included reaching out to Kosciusko County eighth graders and sophomores about career opportunities in orthopedics manufacturing and approaching experienced engineering and scientific professionals about relocating to the region.
A winning strategy
Bishop believes the effort to attract talent has been aided by quality-of-life investments partially financed by the state's Regional Cities Initiative, which allocated $42 million to northeast Indiana. Bishop was one of five men appointed to the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority board, the group that evaluated and approved grant requests.
Projects approved in the region include the Manchester Early Learning Center in North Manchester, the Kendallville Outdoor Recreation Center, the Michiana Event Center in Shipshewana, Trine University's Thunder Ice Arena and a portion of the Poka-Bache Connector, a planned 81-mile trail that will connect Ouabache State Park in Bluffton to Pokagon State Park in Angola.
Local recipients included The Landing, Clyde Theatre and riverfront development.
Sampson, formerly of the Regional Partnership, said the organization's Vision 2020 initiative, adopted in 2009, included a focus on talent and quality of place. The latter included riverfront development and creation of Promenade Park, a $100 million project.
But not everyone believed it could happen.
“People laughed. They said, 'You'll never see that, John,' ” Sampson said of Promenade Park, which was included in “The Road to One Million,” northeast Indiana's successful, 200-plus-page bid to the Regional Cities Initiative program.
The connection between investing in a park and economic prosperity wasn't obvious to everyone, making it even more challenging to line up necessary funding. That was even after the success of Harrison Square ignited a downtown Fort Wayne renaissance.
“My fear when we finished Parkview Field was people would say, 'That's enough for now,' ” Sampson said.
Randolph, formerly of Northeast Indiana Works, praised the region's varied lifestyle investments, calling the effort brilliant.
Dr. Geoff Randolph was chief medical officer for Lutheran Hospital and then IU Health Fort Wayne before retiring at the end of last year. In that capacity, he recruited young doctors to move to Fort Wayne.
Kathleen Randolph said her husband had increasing success persuading physicians to move here as more quality-of-place projects were proposed and completed.
“I do think that has made a significant difference,” she added.
John Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s president and CEO, also pointed to the Regional Cities Initiative as an important boost.
“It helped accelerate the number of projects we could get done. And I think we'll see the same thing with READI,” he said, referring to the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, the state's newest economic development effort.
Indiana officials have earmarked $500 million for regional projects designed to improve innovation, talent attraction and general quality of place.
Music venues, biking trails and event centers are nice, but they don't meet many families' practical needs.
Bishop, of OrthoWorx, said a lack of available housing and child care have stunted population growth in northeast Indiana.
Allen County's population was on a downward trend for several years through 2016. The low point was 2008, when 1,800 more people left Allen County than moved or were born here. Domestic migration has since rebounded in Allen's favor, growing by 897 last year and 1,514 the prior year.
But rural counties' lack of housing hasn't made growth easy in surrounding counties. Urbahns expects that will change, however.
“You're going to see housing be a big component of the READI grants” requests, he said.
The lack of child care centers affects efforts to upskill workers, too. Someone who wants to increase his skills might not be able to arrange child care when the necessary community college courses are offered, for example.
“It's really a multipronged issue that can't be solved with just one program,” Bishop said.
Some efforts launched shortly before the coronavirus pandemic addressed housing and child care issues in the region, Bishop said. But, he added, it's hard to evaluate their success considering how the economy has been “scrambled” by the pandemic.
Kathleen Randolph was in the audience when that strategic business futurist spoke to local Chamber of Commerce members back in 2004. She and other local leaders took the author's warning of an upcoming worker shortage seriously.
But, she said, “I'm not sure we knew what to do.”
Urbahns said the current worker shortage could be worse.
“I think we're much better positioned than we would have been if we hadn't done all those things,” he said after reviewing various initiatives and investments.
Bishop is also among those unwilling to criticize the region's economic development efforts from the past two decades.
“I don't know what else could have been done,” he said, or what else “needed to be done.”
At a glance
Attracting and retaining talent are priorities for northeast Indiana economic development officials. One way to measure their success is to compare the 11-county region's net migration data from the past decade. The statistics combine the number of new residents minus the number of residents who moved away to arrive at a final, net migration number. For most of the past decade, the region has lost more residents than it has added, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The year 2017 marked the turning point.
Source: Purdue University Fort Wayne's Community Research Institute
Note: The 11-county region comprises Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.
About this series
This story is part of a special report that looks at the area's labor shortage and how employers, educators and other stakeholders are responding.
• Strategies to help upskill and expand the local labor workforce are being fueled by millions of dollars in training grants.
• How Lutheran Social Services of Indiana is making an impact.