MARK FRANKE: If this is the Rust Belt, we are proud to be here

Growing up in Fort Wayne in the 1950’s, even a youngster like me realized that this was an industrial town. The east end industries employed tens of thousands of workers, General Electric (where my father worked) had three large plants, and there was a strip of heavy industry along Taylor Street on the west side.

By the time I was raising my own family, all this had changed. The dreaded announcement by International Harvester that it was shutting down its Fort Wayne assembly plant in 1983 was simply an exclamation point on an already dismal story of decline. Drive around the Pontiac Street-New Haven Avenue-Meyer Road quadrant today to get a feel for what East Berlin must have looked like after World War II.

Fort Wayne was not alone in Indiana. Gary’s steelmill story is even more sobering. The Kokomo-Anderson region suffered from the decline of the American automakers. Terre Haute’s nemesis was mine closings.

But now Indiana is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for percentage of manufacturing employment at 18 percent. According to Congressman Jim Banks’ office, Indiana’s Third Congressional District is at the top of 435 congressional districts across the nation for manufacturing jobs.

How did we fall so low and rebound so well? Start with our centrality in the nation’s transportation network. It was the rivers, then the canals, followed by the railroads, and now the highway network that made and makes northeast Indiana attractive to manufacturers. There is also an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit alive in our region as our 200-year history proclaims. Perhaps most importantly there is a natural economic trend to diversity in products, technology, workers, and markets. These points were emphasized at a recent panel discussion on labor history at the Fort Wayne History Center and sponsored by the IPFW Community Conversation program.)

Most recent data show that only two of Allen County’s top 10 employers are manufacturers. Tellingly, the top two are the local health systems. More tellingly, four are governmental or quasi-governmental organizations. Of the 12 employers with a full-time equivalent workforce of at least 1,000, only three are manufacturers.

So where are all these manufacturing jobs? Driving around the region would confirm that they are widely disbursed, along interstates and railroads and only sometimes in so-called industrial parks. Nearly all these businesses are what economists would classify as small employers with fewer than 500 workers.

Take DeKalb County for example. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, fully 43 percent of DeKalb jobs are in the manufacturing sector. (The reference point for Allen County is 15 percent, still a high number comparatively.)

DeKalb’s manufacturing employment rate is five times the national average. The county has about 120 reported manufacturers with an average workforce of just under 80 employees, well within the economic definition of small.

Some would be quick to argue that this is due to low wages in a right-to-work state. Yet the average weekly manufacturing wage last year in both counties was over $1,200. You would have had to be a banker or federal employee in Allen County to beat that. You couldn’t beat the wage in DeKalb.

So have we reestablished the old Rust Belt mentality here? That answer must be no, for many of the reasons that historically have made us strong in manufacturing.

Our Hoosier values and Midwestern work ethic will continue to serve us well in a changing economy because of our most important human capital asset — adaptability.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at IPFW.

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