Elkhart, Indiana, the “RV capital of the world,” boasts a 2% unemployment rate and billboards along major highways offer jobs with great starting pay with the area’s many RV manufacturers. Because of the great demand for RVs and a shortage of workers to build them, reports the Indy Star, the industry is teaming up with a local high school to teach students the skills needed for these good jobs.
Until this year, Noah Alexander hadn’t thought much about a job in the RV industry. But Alexander liked doing things with his hands and gravitated toward career and technical education classes. So when he heard about NorthWood High School’s new sequence of courses designed to prepare students for a job in RV construction, he enrolled.
Alexander is one of 10 students participating in NorthWood’s new RV construction pathway, made possible by a rewrite of the state’s graduation requirements and created in coordination with one of the country’s largest manufacturers of recreational vehicles and designed to produce high school graduates with the skills needed to work on the assembly line of any one of the area’s RV factories.
With dozens of factories, the county makes more than half of all RVs in the country and has more than 72,000 manufacturing jobs. Some question whether the good times for the industry are here to stay, or what would happen if the county experiences a repeat of the 2008 economic crisis that hit Elkhart harder than anywhere and saw thousands of RV workers laid off.
But, right now, the industry can’t find enough skilled workers, so Elkhart County’s Wa-Nee Schools system will try to fill the need. Thor believes in this model so much – or perhaps needs workers so badly – that they’re starting to reach out to students as early as the fifth grade. The company launched a program called LEAP last year, with programming for fifth-graders, eighth-graders and high school students. They’ll take it to as least 18 schools in the Elkhart area this year and hope to reach 5,000 students.
“They’ll be able to walk into one of our HR departments and say, ‘Look, I’ve mastered measuring, I’ve mastered air tools, I’ve mastered wiring, plumbing, HVAC,’ those types of things,” said Rick Schutt, director of community engagement for Thor Industries. “They’ll have those skills and be ready to go from day one.”