PRINCETON — Like many other large and small employers in the region, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana is thirsting for more good workers: a whole bunch more.

Two years ago, the Gibson County plant announced a major expansion, mostly driven by skyrocketing consumer demand for Highlander SUVs. Toyota said it would invest $600 million, with the intent of building 40,000 more vehicles per year.

Toyota is pushing toward those production targets, with a current workforce of about 5,600. But make no mistake: Toyota needs more hands in Princeton to build the Highlander as well as the Highlander Hybrid, Sienna and Sequoia.

“We are still looking for about 400 people,” plant manager Millie Marshall said last week.

In the current economic climate, it’s a burdensome task.

Marshall pointed to microscopic unemployment rates (3.4 percent in Indiana, 4.3 percent in Kentucky, 4.2 percent in Illinois in July per the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Those numbers locally have trended even lower.

When Toyota announces a boost in capacity and jobs, it means the plant’s suppliers must make additions. This creates even more competition for what few people are available.

Marshall also noted the region’s flat population trend.

Vanderburgh County showed population of 179,703 in 2010, and its estimate for 2018 was 180,974. Gibson County had 33,503 people in 2010, and 33,452 in 2018. Warrick County fared a bit better, going from 59,689 to a 62,567 estimate over the eight years.

“Not a lot of folks are coming into the area,” Marshall said. “The sweet spot for Southwest Indiana is manufacturing. We have Berry Global. We have a lot of good paying competitive jobs, but the demand for the workforce is overpowering. We are pulling from the same group.”

Marshall said local companies are having to reevaluate recruiting strategies to avoid “cannibalizing” one another, and this has meant searching far beyond the Tri-State. Toyota has made advertising pitches in areas such as Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and even Austin, Texas.

A video news release from Toyota about the company’s salary ($18.95 per hour to start, and $29 per hour for a production team member) and job availability was picked up recently by Fox Business. The network sent a crew to Princeton to do news segments.

Toyota also is courting local coal miners facing layoffs, as well as veterans starting new life chapters, Marshall said.

According to data provided by the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana, Toyota is hardly alone is its search for talent.

In Vanderburgh, Gibson, Posey and Warrick counties in Indiana and Henderson County, Kentucky, there were about 11,800 job listings in August, covering more than 530 occupations and 2,600 employers.

It's true that many openings are in the retail and food service realm, but registered nurses, truck drivers and tradespeople also are in high demand.

"We just see a greater desire for more technically skilled individuals, and that’s across the board with every manufacturer in our nine-county region," said Sara Wortsell, executive director of Grow Southwest Indiana Workforce.

Manufacturing, health care and life sciences are drivers of the local workforce, said Greg Wathen, Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana CEO.

Like Toyota, Wathen said Southwest Indiana as a whole is working to attract talent to the region. Social media is a big part of the strategy.

Wathen's agency and others use LinkedIN, Facebook and Instagram to connect with people who could be candidates for job openings here. Individuals with past connections to Evansville or surrounding communities are considered prime candidates.

There are other platforms. Wathen said this weekend's Korn Ferry Tour Championship at Victoria National Golf Club, for example, is an opportunity for Southwest Indiana to promote itself as a place where individuals and families can have good jobs and build a future.

Advertising spotlighting Evansville and surrounding areas is airing on The Golf Channel throughout the tournament.

"We want to expand the geography of what might be labor pool," Wathen said. "Yes, there are entry level and retail jobs, but there also are technical and other jobs people might want. We have to continue building the brand.”

Wathen said the 11,800 job openings listed in the region is a low estimate; in reality, he said there are likely about 1,200 more.

Technical skills are in demand, but economic development officials say "soft skills" are important too. Toyota and other companies say technical skills can be taught when people are reliable and willing to learn.

"We have seen companies change their on-boarding processes to help acclimate those who don’t have the most appropriate skill match to be successful in the open position," Wortsell said.

Toyota's need for help won't cease anytime soon.

Sales of the Highlander grew 5.5 percent from July 2018 to July 2019, reaching 22,328. The next most-popular vehicle made in Princeton is the Sienna, which had sales of 6,552 for the month.

Marshall said Toyota has a lot to offer on top of salary: onsite child care, education opportunities, onsite gyms and "all types of fabulous medical insurance."

"If a person has basic skills: teamwork, problem solving, working collaboratively, we’ll train you to be an industrial athlete," Marshall said. "You can be from high school, people with college degrees, from the coal mines. Technology is always changing. And we have the philosophy our current workforce will have the ability to change with it."

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