DESTINATION: JOBS

A short commute to work might be ideal for most people, but a longer trip during morning and afternoon drive times is becoming more common for those who live outside Columbus.

Lance Atkins travels about 50 minutes from Indianapolis to Columbus every weekday for his job at the Claas of America farm-equipment company in the Woodside Industrial Park. Ilese Sabelhaus’ job at the Stonebelt social services provider in Columbus requires about a 40-minute drive from her Jennings County home.

They are among a growing number of people commuting into Bartholomew County, which needs workers for an expanding job base, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data.

The commuting data for 2013, when compared with previous census data for 2010, shows that more residents from nearby central Indiana counties are traveling to Bartholomew County to work.

Marion, Brown, Jennings, Johnson and Jackson counties reflected the greatest growth, totaling an increase of almost 1,400 employees during the three-year period. All had at least 120 more workers commuting, with Marion County leading the increase with 473.

Most commuters to Bartholomew County come from Jennings and Jackson counties — each topping 2,800 — while more than 2,200 come from Johnson County. Those three counties plus Brown and Marion represent 79 percent of the 13,245 people who drive to Bartholomew County to work.

“This confirms what we know — we have a very strong job market here. Companies are adding employment,” said Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board. “I don’t think it’s surprising. Across the board, employers are adding employment.”

Steady job growth in Bartholomew County has been experienced since the country emerged from the Great Recession, Hester said.

Atkins, who has made the trek to Columbus for seven years, said he can definitely tell more people are commuting to the city to work.

“I pass more people working at Cummins — I see the tags on their cars — and I pass the (Cummins) commuting bus that comes here. That’s something that’s happened the last few years I have noticed. The economy in this county is so strong that it attracts people within 50 miles.”

More staying put

While more people are traveling to Bartholomew County to work, the percentage of people holding jobs in the county who also live in Bartholomew County also increased, from nearly 82 percent to 85.5 percent.Alan Degner, director of workforce development for Elwood Staffing, knows why that trend has occurred. With a growing number of jobs in the county, more people are able to find work here and don’t have to travel elsewhere.That’s reflected in the recently released census data, which shows another trend: Fewer people are leaving Bartholomew County to work in other counties, particularly in central Indiana.

The three-year period showed about 1,600 fewer Bartholomew County residents commuting to nearby counties.

Johnson, Marion, Jackson and Jennings counties all saw a sizable drop of Bartholomew County residents commuting to their counties — more than 100 each and nearly 900 combined. Johnson County led the drop-off with 295. Only Decatur County saw an increase, of 41.

Degner said the two trends are consistent with what his placement firm sees in helping people find jobs and based on what they have heard from others involved in the labor market.

Growth in the manufacturing sector has created more job opportunities in Bartholomew County, Degner said. But the fact that the county has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state means county residents are already working and employers are having to draw workers from surrounding counties to meet their needs.

Economic investment by Cummins, Enkei, Faurecia and Toyota are some examples of the job growth locally, Degner said.

“More individuals are employed in the manufacturing sector than ever in county history,” Degner said.

Weighing factors

People prefer to stay close to home to work, but commutes of an hour or less are not problematic if the job is good, Degner said. The fact that Interstate 65 comes through the county makes commuting a lot easier, he said.While gas prices concern commuters and might make them think about relocating closer to where they work, sometimes other considerations keep them living in one place and working in another, Degner said. Those considerations could include family, community amenities or the cost of living, he said.That’s the case with Sabelhaus and Atkins.

Sabelhaus, 42, lives a little south of Vernon with her three children, ranging in age from 10 to 16. She’s made the commute to Columbus for eight years. The primary reason she lives in Jennings County is that her support system of relatives lives there, and they provide a lot of help in watching the children, Sabelhaus said.

Other factors in her decision are that she can’t find a job in Jennings County that offers the opportunities and wages that she wants, and the cost of living in Columbus is too high for her budget, she said.

“In my job, I have to find rental properties for people to live in, but in Columbus it’s outrageous. Trying to buy a house or rent here, it costs more to live in Columbus than Jennings County,” Sabelhaus said.

Also, Sabelhaus had a previous job that required commutes all around the state, as far as South Bend some days. So she’s used to driving for work, she said.

Atkins, 36, grew up in Columbus. After graduating from Columbus North in 1997, college and work took him elsewhere, eventually to the south side of Indianapolis. He’s been commuting to Columbus for his job at Claas for seven years.

Days start by 6 a.m. for Atkins so he can get the children on their way and himself to work by 8. That’s hard, he said, and $3 gas prices do make him think about his daily drives. However, family considerations and the high cost of living in Columbus factor into his decision to continue commuting, he said.

Atkins is the primary provider for his 7-year-old twins — a boy and a girl — and living in Indy keeps the children near their mother, his ex-wife, Atkins said. Also, his father lives in Greenwood, which is close.

Housing prices are higher in Columbus, and too few homes are in the $125,000 to $175,000 range that young families desire, Atkins said. He estimated that his house in Indianapolis would cost 30 percent more in Columbus.

‘All about a way of life’

Good jobs and family considerations factor into the daily commutes of John Gosney and Randy Babcock — although they are part of the downward trend of people who leave Bartholomew County to work.Gosney, 45, has commuted for 14 years from Columbus to Indianapolis, where he works with the central information technology group for Indiana University. Living in Columbus splits the distance between relatives. His wife’s family lives in Jennings County while his family lives on the east side of Indianapolis. Plus, Gosney and his wife like what Columbus offers.“We love this town,” he said.

Gosney said he doesn’t mind the 45-minute commute to work, describing it as his personal time, which he uses to listen to the radio or a book on tape.

Babcock, 56, works for Hill-Rom, a maker of hospital beds and other medical devices. More than 11 years ago, he received an offer from the company to relocate to Indiana to work at its Batesville location. When he and his wife looked for a place to live, Columbus came to the forefront because it offered good schools and his sister-in-law — who is married to North High School Principal David Clark — lived in the city.

He said the idea of working in Columbus has crossed his mind, because the 50-minute commute gets old sometimes and high gas prices pinch because the truck he drives gets 15 miles to the gallon.

However, Babcock continues the commute because he likes his job and the community in which he lives.

“It’s all about a way of life in Columbus. We have a lot of friends now and we’re active,” he said.

Degner said he expects the trends of more people commuting to Bartholomew County to work and fewer leaving to work elsewhere to continue for some time because of companies’ expansion plans and need for talent.

However, Hester said the county also has an opportunity to grow and entice more people to live and work here as it considers housing options.

“It all ties together,” he said.

Job growth

Employers in Columbus have been adding jobs in recent years. Here are few examples.

Faurecia

Celebrated in July a groundbreaking for a $61 million expansion where workers will produce a new high-tech emission control product for Cummins. An estimated 131 new jobs are needed at the plant.

Sunright America

Dedicated its $34.6 million expansion, the company’s third in 12 years, on Oct. 17, 2014. The company added 60 jobs to its current 200-employee workforce.

Toyota Material Handling USA

Toyota Material Handling dedicated a $4.6 million, 21,400-square-foot expansion in November 2013, when Toyota moved its North American headquarters of Toyota Material Handling USA to Columbus. The move and expansion brought 75 jobs to Columbus.

Cummins Inc.

In August 2013, Cummins Inc. announced plans to build a new light-duty diesel engine in a partnership with Nissan at the Columbus Engine Plant. The engine is to be used in Nissan’s Titan pickup. The company hoped to add as many as 500 jobs for the project over time as production and demand grow.

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.