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Barriers are growing as employers work to meet local workforce needs

Employers in Wabash County are casting a wider net to fill their labor needs and are considering relocation in order to scale their operations. Regionally, there is a similar picture. The 11-county northeast Indiana labor force has decreased by 10,000 people or two percent and this trend has greatly increased the competition for workers, especially skilled labor, around Wabash. In a candid interview with the Imagine One 85 planning team, a local business owner expanded on the challenge.

“We’re on the cusp of scaling our operation right here in Wabash County, but the limitations or the risks we see have to do with people. We need skilled operators and we’re looking farther and farther and offering more and more.” 

Business Owner, Wabash County, IN

There is a strong, demonstrated link between economic output and the vitality of the local labor force. Population decline further stresses the system, as young people – especially those with a college degree – migrate to other communities. Considering the majority of new jobs in the county (59%) come from business start-ups, this out-migration is troubling. Additionally, while the unemployment rate quickly recovered from a COVID-19 high of 16.5% back down to 4.5%, the labor force participation total (those actively employed or looking for work) has fallen at a faster rate than the population: from a high point of 18,400 in 2002 to just over 15,000 in 2021. This nearly 20% decrease is six times the regional decline and twice the population decline. The impacts to small business are just as acute, shares Brian Howenstine, owner of True Value Hardware.

“It doesn’t really matter if you have a big production business or a small shop, it’s all about people. If I can’t find reliable labor, I can’t turn that sign every morning. The problem here is the change is so slow. We almost don’t notice the decrease. But, I can tell you, if you’ve tried to hire a staff, you get it. You see it and you want to be part of the process to reverse it.” 

Brian Howenstine, Owner, True Value Hardware
Chair, Imagine One 85 Steering Committee

Demographics are an added challenge. In 2020, 26% of the County’s jobs were held by people over the age of 55. In critical industries such as manufacturing and agriculture, which account for over 3,000 jobs combined and more than a third of the county’s employment, more than 30 percent of workers are over the age of 55. This pending wave of retirement has the potential to add to labor scarcity, especially in two of the county’s most productive sectors.Opportunity exists, however, with the out-commuters. Regional competition for workers is intense, and businesses are hiring from farther and farther. Cheap gas prices and limited homebuilding have led to a rise in the ultra-commuter, or those commuting more than 50 miles one way.  Among county residents in the workforce, 37% commute more than 25 miles, and nearly 22% commute over 50 miles. Wabash County is a net-exporter of labor, and nearly 7,800 people who live in the community work outside. At the same time, local businesses are filling their needs from the region, with more skilled trades being imported from outside. There is capacity to capture more of this labor within the county if the skills, pay, and opportunities align.


Imagine One 85 is a process to confront the population challenge head on. Through direct engagement with the community and stakeholders and in-depth analysis of the county’s conditions and trends, the Steering Committee is working to develop a strong and visionary plan to help lead the communities of the county toward growth. A recent presentation by the group revealed that the county would need to grow by 85 new families or households each year in order to recapture it’s previous population high in 25 years. The “+85” initiative is emerging as a central recommendation of the work, with strategies focused squarely at the challenge. 

Do you care about these issues and want to get involved? On July 14 the Steering Committee will host an event to explore the challenges and potential of Wabash County. The Imagine One 85 Growth Summit will be a unique and interactive moment for community members to share and make a direct impact on their community. The meeting will take place from 6 to 8 PM on the Honeywell Plaza and include food and entertainment highlighting the best of Wabash County. Attendance is free and registration is available on the project website,

If you’re interested in the population issue, demographics, or the analysis that has been completed through the Imagine One 85 process so far, check out the Reports & Analysis page for more information. Volume 2: Prosperity, linked to the right, will be of particular relevance to this issue.

This is the first in a multi-part series developed to share the major findings of the Imagine One 85 analysis and community conversations. For more information on the content or reports please contact Imagine One 85 Project Manager Kyle May, The full series will also be shared on the process website,

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