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Look at all the towering blast furnaces, the soaring flare stacks, the rumbling rail cars, and the semi-trailer trucks hauling steel coils that weigh more than a car.

The Region was built on hard work.

Northwest Indiana has long been home to steelworkers, oil workers, auto workers and other tough factory workers who aren't averse to breaking a sweat and who shower after work, not before. In the Region, people put in a long day's work — including during graveyard shifts because the blast furnaces that burn along the lakefront cannot just be switched off, and some assembly lines run around the clock to keep up with demand. It's a place where people don hard hats and work boots, and can point to what they did at the end of a shift.

In July, Northwest Indiana's workforce consisted of an estimated 414,325 people, including 395,414 people who were employed and 18,911 people who were actively seeking work, according to the Valparaiso-based Center for Workforce Innovations. The Region's workforce grew by 1,657 people as compared to June.

Employment stood at 4.6% in the Gary metropolitan area, down significantly from a high of around 12% during the Great Recession a decade ago.

"The availability of jobs and pay has continued to improve in Northwest Indiana," Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said. "In 2018, there were 288,988 workers employed in Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties, the highest level of employment in almost a decade. In 2018, the unemployment rate also declined to 4.6%, the lowest rate since the year 2000. Average annual wages for the Region also increased to $46,450 per year in 2018, up 3.5% from 2017 compared with 2.8% and 0.5% growth during the previous two years."

The highly industrial Region had been suffering from a shrinking workforce in recent years. Northwest Indiana has lost nearly 3% of its population over the past decade along with the greater Chicago metropolitan area amid a nationwide population shift from the Midwest to the coasts, the Sun Belt, and southern states with more sunshine and better weather. 

But things have finally started moving back in the right direction, Pollak said.

"For the first time in almost a decade, Northwest Indiana has started to reverse the outflow of our population, a sign of a strengthening labor force," he said. "Since 2010, the three-county region of Lake, LaPorte and Porter has lost a net of 24,000 people due to domestic migration, with 2,000 to 5,000 more people moving out than into the region each year. However, in 2018, we had slightly positive net domestic migration, gaining 88 more people than we lost. This positive net migration helped contribute to an increase in population during 2018, the largest since 2010."

Amid automation and outsourcing, headcounts at  many of Northwest Indiana's largest industrial employers ringing the Lake Michigan shoreline have shrunk. Today's manufacturing jobs often are more technical, requiring more formal education.

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The workforce has been adjusting to a changing world, said Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of Center of Workforce Innovations.

"The workforce in Northwest Indiana continues to evolve and the workers are resilient as they seek out places to work that keep them employed," Woloshansky said. "Workers are taking into account the need for boosting their skills and this is evidenced by early indications of increased enrollment at our community colleges and other post-secondary institutions and training providers. Many continue to take on two part-time jobs in order to provide for their family."

But good-paying jobs remain available for those with the skills to land them, Woloshansky said.

"As businesses and many industries struggle with finding the right workers, we are seeing Region employers finding value and focusing on retraining and upskilling their current workforce for retention and advancement," she said. "Many jobs are being created that require education and training beyond high school that don’t specifically require a four-year degree, but rather a combination of skill certifications and work experiences. In addition, and as a result of the new high school graduation pathways, region employers will be able to work directly with high schools in providing options for students to launch successful careers with their companies through work-based learning opportunities."

Many initiatives are training workers for industry needs, such as ArcelorMittal's Steelworker for the Future or NIPSCO's Energy Technology program at Ivy Tech. River Forest High School in New Chicago recently added an advanced manufacturing program. Michigan City High Schools launched a Compressed Air Academy to prepared students for careers at local air compressor companies like Sullair, Sullivan-Palatek, Vanair and Dekker Vacuum Technologies. The Porter County Career and Technical Center helps high school students find opportunities and jobs, Northwest Indiana Forum President and CEO Heather Ennis said.

"We are facing a silver tsunami with a wave of retirees," she said. "But we have great programs at the high school level through the university level to train skilled workers. We have a very talented workforce and need to grow those skills for the next generation of manufacturing and innovations, like the internet of things. The workers of the future will need to adapt quickly. But in Northwest Indiana, our workers have long been strong and resilient. We have great folks who have made things work for generations."

Today's workers need to be lifelong learners to keep up with advancements in technology and evolving workplaces, Ennis said. Her Portage-based, privately funded economic development agency is working to diversify the Northwest Indiana economy by bringing in more firms in the agricultural value chain, heavy industry, tourism, intermodal and business services sectors, a top priority in the Ignite the Region plan.

It's also working to promote Northwest Indiana and develop more amenities that will attract more human talent to the area, to meet the needs of employers.

"There's a great feeling we have about the Region," she said. "Our labor force has the dedication to get up and go to work every day. Our workforce is determined, hardworking, tough, strong and impressive. That's critically important because that's what companies are looking for."

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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.