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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Freddie Alcantar loads his van for another round of deliveries from Peerless Cleaners downtown.

Promising portent on pay?

Personal income posts modest rise in region, a hint of better times

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Peerless Cleaners officials say they find it difficult to find quality drivers.
The Journal Gazette

The numbers weren’t pretty.

But even before a quarterly economic study revealed salaries in the area continue to trail state and national averages, individuals have been trying to turn the tide – which at times seems like a tsunami.

In October, the Community Research Institute at IPFW wrote Allen County Insight that revealed the disparity in annual wages. At $39,535, we’re behind Hoosiers statewide who average $40,248 and the rest of the country at $48,040.

John Stafford, director of the institute, said efforts to improve pay will be gradual because “you’re talking about getting back to levels that took more than a decade to reach.”

“You can’t expect things to turn overnight,” he said.

As part of the country’s Rust Belt, Indiana watched thousands of high-wage manufacturing jobs vanish as automakers downsized or closed plants, eliminated brands and continued to face stiff competition from their Asian counterparts.

But Stafford said a modest increase in northeast Indiana’s per capita personal income as a percentage of the nation’s per capita personal earnings is reason to at least believe the worst is over. A report released last month showed that in 2010, residents in the region made 79.4 percent on the dollar, and in 2011 that number rose to 79.9 percent.

While still a far cry from the 96 percent on the dollar mark of more than a decade ago, Stafford said the figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis suggest the bleeding has stopped.

“Every (metro area’s) income tends to go up each year, but it’s just that we’ve been slower than the rest of the nation,” Stafford said. “The next challenge is building the per capita income back up and that’s not going to be easy because of the loss of so many high-paying manufacturing jobs and some corporate headquarters positions. At the end of the day, the wages will be based on the quality of the workforce available.”

Peerless Cleaners President Steve Grashoff said quality is often lacking. He has a band of nine dependable delivery service drivers, but the businessman doesn’t relish having to replace one.

“It’s difficult to find a capable driver with a clean driving record,” Grashoff said. “Many (candidates) are just uninsurable because of multiple traffic violations or DUIs. You’re always concerned about turnover, but we have a pretty good group now.”

Online resource hopes to be a resource for job seekers. The website has several listings, including jobs most in demand requiring less than a bachelor’s degree. They are: heavy truck drivers, retail salespeople, registered nurses, sales representatives in wholesale and manufacturing industries and first-line supervisors.

“We’ve had a huge response to the website, although at first there was some confusion with people thinking they could apply for jobs on the site,” said Kris Deckard, who oversees for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “We’re hoping schools will use this as a tool with their students.”

Tom Lewandowski is president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Lewandowski said he appreciates anything that attempts to improve the employment picture. He’s just not certain does the trick.

“I’m not sure there’s anything new or anything someone can’t find on one of the state’s websites,” Lewandowski said.

About two weeks ago the Indiana Department of Workforce Development unveiled its updated “Hoosier Hot 50” jobs list, a tool that provides Hoosiers an insight into the most in-demand and high-paying careers in today’s job market and in the future.

First introduced in 2006, the Hoosier Hot 50 is published every two years.

Lewandowski questions whether the site is redundant.

“How do you measure the effectiveness of this site?” he said. “What you don’t want is people visiting it and walking away scratching their heads.”

Deckard said the website is in its infancy and more information will be added as it becomes available.

“We do plan on updating it very soon,” Deckard said.

One revision is likely to be data in a statewide median annual wage table that is mistakenly listed as the salaries for each metro area in Indiana, The Journal Gazette discovered.

Young guns

In any event, campaigns at the local level to boost salaries in Allen County will go on. Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana has been calling attention to pay issues in the region in recent years.

Justin Clupper is a member of the group’s board of directors. The 28-year-old admits to bolting to the Indianapolis area after graduating from Taylor University.

“I saw Fort Wayne as a place where there wasn’t a lot of activity and not a lot of newness happening,” said Clupper, who is director of special events for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

“When I left, all they had was Jefferson Pointe. Fort Wayne just seemed like it was going to be a commercial retail area. In Indianapolis, there was a lot more arts and entertainment.”

But five years ago, when an opportunity to return to the area surfaced, Clupper came back. Young Leaders had much to do with him sticking it out in Fort Wayne as did the city’s burgeoning downtown area and attractions – like Parkview Field and Harrison Square.

“I still have friends wondering why I left Indy for Fort Wayne, but things are changing,” Clupper said. “I have gone from thinking, ‘Why am I in Fort Wayne?’ to ‘Why would I leave?’ ”

Attracting such young talent will always be dicey, said Helen Murray, a member of the Young Leaders advisory council. She also is dean of the Keith Busse School of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Saint Francis.

“There may have been an old guard that made young people feel they didn’t have a place at the table, but that’s not the case anymore,” Murray said. “If we want to attract and retain young people they have to have a say in what’s going on.”

And if Fort Wayne gets the reputation of taking young adults seriously, that could be a draw, Murray said.

Sweetwater Sound makes it a point to go after the younger set. Officials there estimate the average worker’s age to be in the upper 20s.

The music equipment retailer routinely pulls job candidates from Orlando, Fla., Boston, Nashville, Tenn., and Memphis, Tenn., said Christopher Guerin, director of program development for Sweetwater.

“Hiring young graduates is one of our priorities,” he said, “and music is cool.”

Once on Sweetwater’s campus, prospective employees are impressed with the company’s amenities that include a gymnasium, in-house restaurant, gaming area and DVD lending library.

“We feel like we’re helping to reverse the brain drain of young talent leaving the area,” Guerin said.

In June, the company announced a nearly $24 million expansion and plans to add 315 jobs. The positions are in sales, marketing, administration and shipping. The median salary is $65,000 a year.

Figures like that are luring up-and-comers like bees to honey, Murray said.

“Sweetwater is a bit of an anomaly” in that it is seen as a cool company to work for with good wages, she said.

Guerin said Sweetwater is proud of its reputation among young job candidates.

“The company has worked very hard to grow its business,” Guerin said. Unlike many retailers, he said Sweetwater’s emphasis isn’t on expanding its brick-and-mortar presence, but on “investing in our people.”