Jayco workers in trailer production facility

The self-proclaimed RV capital of the world gives a glimpse of what the American economy looks like when operating at full tilt.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, high-school students around here skip college for factory jobs that offer great pay and benefits. For-hire signs sprout like roadside weeds. And workers are so flush that car dealers can’t keep new pickups on the lot.

At the same time, the strains are showing. Employers can’t hang on to employees, and house prices are zooming. The worker shortage prompted a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant to offer $150 signing bonuses. A McDonald’s failed to open for lunch last fall because managers couldn’t corral enough hands at $8 an hour to serve the lines waiting at the door.

No place in the U.S. has seen a labor-market turnaround like this metropolitan region of 110,000 workers, a mix of blue-collar whites, Mexican immigrants and Amish. “It’s like 1955,” said Michael Hicks, a Ball State economist. “If you show up and have minimal literacy skills, you can find a job here.”

Elkhart has unique economic conditions — its good fortune is tied to a central role in the revival of the recreational-vehicle market, where neither automation nor foreign competition is a threat.

But the consequences of a high-pressure labor market may soon be common. As the U.S. turns the page on a decade of postcrisis underemployment, Elkhart, Ind., points to a future of labor shortages and fights over workers.

The jobless rate in the Elkhart region plunged from 20% in March 2009, worst in the U.S., to just over 2% in January, half the national average. The local unemployment rate is actually closer to zero: some 9,500 jobs have no takers. Each day, about 25,000 workers commute into Elkhart city, population 50,000. A county economic development agency is hunting for job candidates across Appalachia and as far as Puerto Rico.

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