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FOCUS 2018: Even in a robust Fort Wayne economy, some segments are growing faster than others

Health care remains one of the largest sectors of Fort Wayne's economy. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Help-wanted signs like this one at Momper Insulation are visible all over tow, but growth in some sectors has been greater than in others. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Rachel Blakeman

Drive around Fort Wayne and you’ll find no shortage of “help wanted” signs. The demand for even unskilled labor is so strong a local McDonald’s restaurant recently resorted to a direct-mail appeal sweetened by coupons for free coffee and pie.

But behind the widespread but anecdotal evidence of a booming economy are statistics that document not only the positive trend in the Fort Wayne Metropolitan Statistical Area of Allen, Wells, and Whitley counties but also evidence as to which sectors are most responsible for the boom.

In less than a decade, the area has enjoyed a dramatic turnaround. In 2009, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, 187,835 MSA residents were working and 22,435 were unemployed, for a jobless rate of 10.7 percent. Last year, by contrast, 205,198 people had jobs and just 6,909 were looking for one, dropping the unemployment rate to 3.3 percent, which was nearly a full percentage point lower than in 2016.

“We’re seeing a very positive trend line. Anything less than 5 percent is considered full employment,” said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Community Research Institute. “Wages are trending up, and manufacturing continues to be a strong component. Health care is strong, too.”

Numbers compiled by the institute bear her out, even though in terms of job growth manufacturing — long a critical component of the local economy — finished second between 2009 and 2017, adding 4,646 positions compared to 5,037 in the health care/social assistance sector. Also growing by more than 1,000 employees were the accommodation and food service sector (2,240), retail trade (2,148), construction (1,347), other services except government (1,149) and administrative support and waste management and remediation (1,055).

Other sectors lost employment, topped by wholesale trade (1,149), transportation and warehousing (746) and information (566). Employment in government dropped, too, by 318.

And although salaries in the MSA rose by an average of $6,430, workers in some industries did far better than others — and the winners and losers did not necessarily mirror the job-creation numbers.

Between 2009 and last year, for example, the annual management salary rose by about $27,000 even though the sector added just 580 jobs. Utility salaries increased by about $19,000 while the sector lost 36 jobs. Other top sectors for wage growth were finance and insurance ($13,934), wholesale trade ($10,496), construction ($9,927 and health care ($8,876.

Manufacturing wage growth, meanwhile, was slightly below average at $6,081, with the lowest wage growth coming in art, entertainment and recreation ($1,357), waste management and remediation ($2,340), other services ($3,407) and government ($3,846).

Making the trend seem perhaps even more robust than it is is the fact that the regional was still struggling with the “great recession” in 2009. Even so, the growth reflect a real and positive change in the region’s productivity.

During that period the gross regional product increased from about $17.3 billion to $25.7 billion. The MSA’s largest sectors also grew: manufacturing (from $3.8 billion to $8.1 billion); finance and insurance ($1.3 billion to $2.05 billion); health care ($1.8 billion to $2.54 billion); government ($1.29 billion to $1.4 billion); and retail trade ($1.03 billion to $1.4 billion).

“We’ve been in an extended period of expansion,” Blakeman concluded. “But the economy will go down. It’s just a question of when, and how deep.”

For now, though, Blakeman is confident in the message the statistics send: “If you want a job, you can get one — but will it be at the wage you prefer?”

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