The RV capital of the world is in the midst of a hiring boom, Reuters news service reports.
In the sprawling manufacturing plants south of Interstate 80-90 in Elkhart County, Ind., the scene resembles a bustling construction site, with drills buzzing, plumbers, electricians and carpenters at outfitting giant rigs with all the comforts of home.
Despite record-high prices at the gas pump, the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) expects sales of RVs to reach their highest level in 25 years, fueled by middle-aged Americans’ increasing affinity for the big fuel-thirsty rigs.
“It’s a challenge for us to get good employees right now,” said Jim Mac, marketing director for Monaco Coach Corp., which operates four plants in the Elkhart area.
Although Wall Street has worried that high fuel costs could curb consumers’ enthusiasm for RVs, the industry so far shows no sign of slowing. The improving economy and Americans’ desire to spend more time with their families are helping to set the pace.
The prices of almost all RV company stocks closed higher Monday (June 7), and in some cases, sharply higher.
The jobless rate for Elkhart County, where one in four workers is employed in the RV industry, is an enviable 4%, a full point below the average for the state as a whole.
“This is the Baby Boom generation that has fueled remarkable increases in demand the past several years and will continue to do so in the next decade,” said Richard Curtin, director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan.
As more families with children join the traditional RV market of active retirees, the age of the average buyer has fallen to 49 from 51 three years ago. More and more enthusiasts have college educations and white-collar jobs, mirroring changes in the U.S. population overall.
“There is substantial demand for the RV lifestyle,” Curtin said. “People find it a very satisfying and fulfilling way to travel and participate in outdoor recreation.”
RV shipments began to accelerate at the start of this year, as the economy improved, and jumped nearly 22% in April from a year earlier, when the Iraq war slowed orders. With demand strong, manufacturers have been able to pass increases in raw material costs on to customers.
Still, worries about the potential impact of high gas prices on sales have weighed on shares of RV makers like Winnebago Industries Inc., Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. and Coachmen Industries Inc. in recent weeks. Motorhomes get about seven to 10 miles to the gallon.
The Arab oil embargo and fuel shortages of the early 1970s dealt a blow to the industry, but high fuel costs alone failed to make a lasting dent in RV sales in the past.
“This time could be different,“ BB&T Capital Markets analyst Kathryn Thompson cautioned. “There was such a dramatic increase in fuel prices that it may delay consumers from buying the product.”
Some RV owners plan to scale back their summer travel itineraries to offset the higher fuel costs.
Retired computer industry professionals Alan and Barbara Lidstone, who own a 33-foot Winnebago Chieftain, lopped a leg off a planned trip to New England from their home in Venice, Fla.
“We were going to go out to Kentucky and Hot Springs and decided not to because it would have added 1,000 miles to the trip,” said Alan Lidstone, who with his wife has written a guidebook on RV travel.