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Jobs and workforce shrink across Northwest Indiana in 2017

Workers inspect the frame of a what will eventually be a military trailer at the Tri-State Industries manufacturing plant in Hammond. Employment shrunk across Northwest Indiana in 2017.

Northwest Indiana has lost more than 10,000 jobs over the past year as its workforce has shrunk.

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development estimates that 10,275 fewer people were employed in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties at the end of November than at the end of November 2016. Lake County lost, 6,098 jobs, Porter County 2,263 jobs and LaPorte County 1,194 jobs over that period.

Though the employment losses are widespread, most significantly the Gary metro has lost 6,200 jobs in manufacturing and construction since 2012, according to Indiana University's Indiana Business Research Center.

Unemployment rates are still down significantly across the Region because the labor force decreased by a greater amount over the past year, said Micah Pollak, Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics. The state government estimates the labor force has shrunk by 7,753 people in Lake County over the past year, 2,812 in Porter County and and 2,369 in LaPorte County.

"While the economy in Northwest Indiana has been growing slowly, economic confidence remains very high and continues to improve," Pollak said. Following the 2007/2008 Great Recession, many individuals not in the labor force were forced by circumstances to enter and look for work. For example, married couples and families with only one income-earner may have decided that their spouse needed to take on a job, or college students might have decided they could no longer afford to continue their degree and instead needed go back to work."

That trend is reversing because of the high economic confidence, Pollak said.

"With a stronger economy, families are more confident about their jobs and earnings, and may be able to go back from double-income to single-income households," he said. "Former college students may receive more support from their families and exit the labor force to return to school."

But many working age people aren't staying in Northwest Indiana. Pollak said there's reason to be concerned about a "serious underlying demographic trend" in the Region.

"Northwest Indiana has long been experiencing a population drain among the ages that are most likely to be in the labor force," he said. "Between 2000 and 2015, the population aged 20 to 24 years old grew 14.7 percentage points slower in Northwest Indiana than nationally – or by 4.1 percent in Northwest Indiana vs. 18.8 percent nationally."

In other words, recent college graduates looking to start a career aren't coming to the Region, Pollak said. Northwest Indiana also is having trouble keeping older workers.

"Over the same time period, the population aged 45 to 54 years old also grew 14.1 percentage points slower in Northwest Indiana than Nationally – or by 2.8 percent in Northwest Indiana vs. 16.8 percent nationally," Pollak said. "This age group is often well established in their careers and close to their peak lifetime earnings. As the population of these two age groups, which are highly desirable from in terms of the labor force, declines or at least grows so much slower than the nation, the underlying labor force is being affected."

Northwest Indiana eventually will have to address the demographic shift to ensure its long-term economic vitality, Pollak said.

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.