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Elkhorn business community shares national concerns

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January 2, 2008
— Elkhorn's business community is experiencing many of the same concerns and problems challenging other companies nationally.

One of those major concerns is a graying of the workforce.


"For every three people leaving the workforce, only one is coming in," said Fred Burkhardt, executive vice president of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance.


In a four-month study, which included surveys, on-site visits and interviews with CEOs, Burkhardt pinpoints the challenges facing Elkhorn's manufacturers, service providers and commercial entities that service businesses.


Included in the city of Elkhorn 2007 Business Retention, Expansion and Conditions Report is another concern that technology will not be able to overcome the shrinking workforce.


"In one instance, the company has offered older or retirement-age workers flex hours to remain on the job," Burkhardt said.


Many employers also question whether the younger workforce will maintain the work standards and motivation commonly seen in the older employees, he said.


The increasing problem of a lack of qualified workers is spreading across a spectrum of businesses.


"Several interviews pointed out that even with time off and paid tuition, it is difficult to find workers that will commit to get the training required to advance," Burkhardt said.


It's no different for Dean Athans, general manager of Chemtool Inc., a manufacturer and custom formulator of greases and lubricants.


Finding the right person for the right position always is a challenge, he said.


"You want the relationship to be good for both the employees and the company," Athans said.


One of the solutions to the local shrinking labor pool might lie within Walworth County's growing Hispanic population.


The general perception is that this emerging workforce brings a sense of commitment, willingness to work and loyalty to their jobs, Burkhardt said.


The drawbacks to that plan are the difficulties associated with documenting the status of the workers and communicating with those who don't speak English, Burkhardt said.


Another problem for Athans is the continuous struggle to wade through the many levels of governmental bureaucracies, he said.


"The best thing government can do for businesses is to leave us alone and not create any more bureaucracy," Athans said.


Overall, Chemtool has found the city of Elkhorn a favorable business location, Athans said.


The industrial park is clean and well patrolled, he said.


The only drawback here is that the park doesn't have enough space for Chemtool to expand its growing operation, Athans said.


And the company currently is looking at another location for its new, larger plant, he said.


Although Chemtool will be moving to another community, many of the other Elkhorn companies have positioned themselves in their current locations to embrace changing markets.


Many companies now have the ability to produce products and equipment that are not part of their existing core product menus.


In many instances, the production process is computerized. Changing specifications, products and raw materials can be done efficiently without new construction, worker training or equipment, Burkhardt said.


Another finding of the study was that many employers also showed interest in promoting their products and services through cooperative marketing tradeshows and asked WCEDA to develop such plans for consideration, Burkhardt said.


"There are no easy solutions, quick fixes or magic bullets here," Burkhardt said. "My inclination is to say that's why one of the major things we're working on is a countywide economic development strategy.



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