Plentiful jobs? Trump fans want better
While many politicians, including President Donald Trump, say the United States desperately needs more manufacturing jobs, this small industrial city has more than enough.
The problem, for many workers here, is one of quality, not quantity.
That's the case with Brandon Seitz. The 32-year-old worked for 12 years on an assembly line at one of the local recreational-vehicle factories that have made Elkhart the RV Capital of the World.
The job, Seitz says, nearly wrecked his health.
His pay, as for assembly workers at most RV factories, was a combination of a low hourly wage and a large production bonus, referred to as the "piece rate."
The frantic rush to meet output targets -- and thus earn bonuses -- made it easier for accidents to happen, he says. During his first year, he tore tendons in his knee when a steel frame hit him.
And then there was the heat. Most RV factories lack air conditioning.
"I was constantly sweating," he says.
"There were days in summer when I drank two-and-a-half gallons of water and was still dehydrated."
In 2014, surgeons cut into his back and used a laser to break up and remove a large kidney stone that they said was caused by dehydration.
That's when Seitz vowed never to work on an RV production line again.
"The money is good," he says, but "it's just so hard on your body."
A manufacturing revival was well under way in Elkhart by the time Trump began promising one during last year's presidential campaign.
During the Great Recession of 2008/09, the local unemployment rate hit 20 per cent, among the highest in the country.
It has since recovered to a seasonally unadjusted 1.9 per cent, its lowest in nearly two decades and far better than the national rate, an adjusted 4.3 per cent.
The RV industry accounts for a big chunk of that improvement.
Local officials estimate that half of jobs here are related to manufacturing and that half of those are linked to RVs.
Today, Elkhart County and the surrounding region produce 85 per cent of US-made RVs.
Unit sales last year were the highest since the 1970s.
Judging by such numbers, times are good in Elkhart -- not the sort of place to find those white, working-class voters who, feeling forgotten by the political class, helped propel Trump to the presidency.
Yet, people here voted two-to-one for Trump, more so than even in deeply Republican Indiana as a whole.
And a few months into the new administration, despite the investigations into alleged Russian involvement in the election, and despite the president's failure so far to get much of the agenda he ran on enacted, support for Trump is strong among local workers, including many Reuters interviewed who stayed away from the polls last November.
Seitz is one of the more recent converts.
He didn't vote in the November election. He says he wasn't sure whom to believe.
Now, he says, he would probably vote for Trump in the future. "He's already living up this promise to bring work back from Mexico," Seitz says.
He and many other workers interviewed for this article don't want more jobs like the ones readily available in Elkhart.
They want jobs with steady, predictable pay for the long haul - the kinds of jobs that decades ago helped build and sustain a solid middle class in Elkhart and across the industrial Midwest.
And they blame immigration and the forces of globalisation for reshaping the work that is available.
Mary Swihart, 28, works in an RV factory here owned by Thor Industries, the nation's largest RV maker, where she earns about $US15 an hour stringing wires into harnesses that go into the vehicles.
She especially likes Trump's pledges to halt illegal immigration and speed up deportations.
Like many workers here, she believes that immigrants are willing to work for less than native-born workers and don't complain as readily about bad conditions.
"If we sent them back, it would mean more jobs for legal Americans," she says.
Elkhart County's population is about 75 per cent non-Hispanic white.
About 30,000 Hispanics live in the county, according to Census data, forming a small but fast-growing community.
Robert Warren, a former Census Bureau demographer who is now a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Migration Studies in New York, has estimated the number illegal immigrants in states and counties across the US.
By his calculation, about 9,400 illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, live in Elkhart County, and of those illegal immigrants who work, 67 per cent have some type of factory or production job.
Officials at Thor and other local RV makers say they don't pay immigrants less and don't hire undocumented workers.
"There's no difference in pay," says Jeffery Tryka, a Thor spokesman. "Every one of our workers is required to provide documentation that they're here legally -- so they're all paid the same."
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