COLUMBIA CITY — What would happen to Whitley County if a recession were to hit in the next five years? Would the low unemployment rate rise dramatically? Would the new high school be less incentivizing for new residents?

Top national business economists are predicting a possible recession in 2020, according to an article from The Associated Press. But how would a recession look in Whitley County, if it were to occur?

It is important to understand the economic facts first, noting that there is not a solid answer of what could happen. Economic predictions are based on the facts of the economy and what has happened in the past — there is no way to say these are the events that will happen, only that these are the events that could happen.

The facts are:

• “The national unemployment rate edged down from April to 3.8 percent and was 0.5 percentage points lower than in May 2017,” as stated in the Labor Market Review’s statistical data report for May 2018, released July 2018.

• Whitley County’s unemployment rate was 2.7 percent for the month of May, according to the Labor Market Review for Economic Growth Region 3 (Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Grant, Huntington, LaGrange, Noble, Stuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties).

• The top 20 job listings by number of openings in Region 3, from the Labor Market Review, in the past month includes farmworkers and laborers, production workers, stock clerks-storeroom, warehouse or storage yard, testers and sorters, helpers-production workers and team assemblers all in the top 10.

• Whitley County is ranked 2,265 out of 3,142 counties in the U.S. in industry diversity, according to the Emsi Industry Diversity Overview — meaning employment is distributed less evenly across the 12 industry clusters than a typical county should be.

• Whitley County’s percent of total employment in the Capital Intensive Manufacturing industry cluster is 23.34 percent higher than that of a typical county.

• Whitley County’s percent of total employment in the Engineering-Intensive Manufacturing industry cluster is 6.31 percent higher than that of a typical county.

• Whitley County’s percent of total employment in 10 of the 12 industry clusters is lower than that of a typical county’s.

If a recession hit in 2020, a few positive outcomes could be inferred from the facts.

Because Whitley County has an increasing number of orthopedic manufacturers and a large number of aerospace and automotive manufacturers, the economy relies on a more diverse spread of industries than counties like Elkhart, which relies vastly on the recreational vehicle industry. However, the county’s industrial diversity has room to grow.

In discussing the possibilities of a recession in Whitley County, Jon Myers, president of the Whitley County EDC, stated that making the county’s economy more diverse is key. Seeing a higher diversity among industry clusters would signal economic stability, making the county more likely to withstand economic pressures, such as recession.

That being said, Whitley County would still be better off than others in recession. “In Whitley County, if the orthopedics industry goes down, our employees’ skills are diverse enough that the company could switch and start running orders for the automotive industry,” said Myers.

Considering Whitley County’s low unemployment and high number of job openings, the idea of laid-off employees migrating to Whitley County to fill job openings here in a recession is a possibility.

For example, if the RV plants in Elkhart take a hit in a recession, it would be possible for people to move into open jobs in Whitley County. Myers stated that because Whitley County factories manufacture parts for the RV plants, though, there could still be a hit; however, those manufacturers possess the ability and skill to switch their product and take less of a loss in the long run. Myers said there might be a little retraining for Elkhart employees, but it would not be out of the realm of possibility for employees to end up in Whitley County jobs.

If a recession hit in 2020, a few negative outcomes could be inferred from the facts, also.

Todd Armstrong is a history teacher at Columbia City High School, and has theorized possibilities on what happens to areas with low unemployment rates during a recession.

“I do not know for sure but would assume that the recession would hit and the economy would begin to slow. This would lead to fewer new buildings or expansions and fewer new purchases, such as cars, RVs, boats and homes. In time, this would impact construction workers, auto manufacturers and the luxury items. This would lead to layoffs in Columbia City in time,” said Armstrong.

The question, then, is if the new high school would be able to withstand an economic decrease, and if it would act as an incentive to live and do business in Whitley County.

Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel said many new homes are being built in Columbia City, and he attributes some of the growth to the construction of the new school.

The thing to remember is that both the positive and negative consequences of a possible recession’s impact on Whitley County are purely hypothetical. That being said, there is a likelihood Whitley County would be better off than other area counties in a recession.

“Recessions, like hangovers, are a tough pill to swallow but ultimately good for us. They remind us not to get too crazy and to live within our means. They also lead to the elimination of frivolous or inefficient companies and or services. As the old adage goes, ‘Only the strong survive,’” said Armstrong.

Despite the low ranking in industrial diversity, Myers feels positively about the economy in Whitley County.

“I think we do a really good job in terms of looking at data and making decisions in terms of economic parts,” said Myers, referring to the EDC’s work to keep Whitley County’s economy growing.

Whitley County EDC priorities for 2018 includes increasing the supply of talented employees and pursuing quality-of-life initiatives that create measurable outcomes.

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