High-Voltage Future for Hard-Hit Indiana Town

Posted by: Greg T. Spielberg on August 12

200121599-001.jpg By Diana Holden
Last week, Barack Obama made his second journey as president to Elkhart, (Ind.) to win support for his economic initiatives. Elkhart County, located in my home state, has a 16.8% unemployment rate because many jobs are tied to the recreational vehicle industry. Last summer’s spike in gas prices and the current recession have severely damaged the sector. RV shipments for the first half of 2009 were down 55% from 2008 according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. It can be hard to find the positives in an area that is bleeding jobs, but Jerry Conover, Director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, sees strong spots in the local economy.

During President Obama’s trip, he visited the Navistar International Corp. factory, pledging $39 million to help the company produce electric trucks. Conover thinks “green” jobs like this are a bright spot in the area’s future, especially if they can employ many of the city’s idle auto workers. In all, Obama has pledged $2.4 billion in stimulus money to create batteries and electric vehicles and much of that money is focused on Midwest states like Indiana and Michigan. Purdue University in West Lafayette will receive a $6.1 million grant to establish educational and training programs for people to design, manufacture, and maintain electric vehicles.

Conover says that other industries continue to look strong in the Midwest, such as agriculture and life sciences. A recent Indiana Business Research Center study says that 23% of new jobs in Indiana between 2001 and 2007 were life sciences jobs, including pharmaceutical research and development, medical equipment manufacturing, and biomedical engineering. “These are high-paying jobs,” Conover says. The life sciences industry accounts for a fifth of Indiana’s manufacturing output.

If Obama comes back to Elkhart in a year, Conover hopes that he finds people employed in jobs that the president helped create. “There’s a lot of interest in the Midwest in tapping into paths that look a little brighter than the ones we’ve been down,” he says. “I think that’s a cause for optimism.”

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BusinessWeek’s Joe Weber, Patricia O'Connell, Michelle Conlin, Frederik Balfour, Peter Coy, Greg Spielberg and Roger Crockett examine The Case for Optimism by looking past the financial turmoil and economic unrest gripping the globe to focus on the promising future that lies on the other side of this storm. We’ll chronicle the forward thinkers investing in R&D, launching promising new products, entering new markets, or implementing management and leadership.

See why BusinessWeek Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler is optimistic about the economy amid the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression.

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