Without a local community college, Erie County, Pennsylvania is losing industry and skilled jobs,writes Mandy Zatynski on Education Sector. Industry won’t invest until Erie invests in training its younger generation.
GE Transportation decided to open a new locomotive plant in Fort Worth in 2011, rather than expanding in Erie, which lost 1,050 jobs. A Forth Worth community college will train machinists and welders in four weeks for jobs in the new factory.
Erie has long fallen short in providing the sort of high-tech training a corporation like GE requires. Recently, 220 employers who responded to an Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership survey said they had almost 2,000 open jobs, but lacked enough skilled workers to fill them. Destination Erie, a consortium formed to revitalize the area’s economy, has already identified this jobs-skills mismatch as one of the region’s top roadblocks to economic growth.
GE will lay off 950 machinists, many with only on-the-job training, adding to the county’s unemployment rate. But laid-off workers have few postsecondary options other than pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Many of the 2,000 open jobs don’t require a four-year degree, but do require the kind of training community colleges provide.
More than 41 percent of Erie workers conclude their education with a high school diploma, in part because of “the limited and overpriced post-secondary options that cater only to those seeking white-collar work,” writes Zatynski.
Penn State Behrend and Mercyhurst University officials are turning more attention to two-year programs, but for the average displaced worker, the costs of these programs are often prohibitive. Annual tuition at Behrend reaches almost $14,000 per year, and tuition at Mercyhurst is the highest in the county at $29,037. Its North East campus charges about half as much, but for someone who is unemployed, these are simply not realistic prices.
The county’s six for-profit colleges advertise attractive educational programs for health care and information technology, but these schools are graduating students with unmanageable debt. Student loan default rates among the area’s for-profit schools are as high as 31 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, indicating that these graduates are unable to find sufficient work to repay their loans.
In short, none of the educational offerings in Erie County provides the flexibility or affordability of a community college, an option that Erie County Council dismissed in 2010 even though the state had allocated table games revenue to help start such an institution.
“When International Paper closed its plant (in 2001), a county-commissioned report spelled economic doom if leaders didn’t establish a community college or otherwise invest in its workforce,” Zatynski writes. “Twelve years later, the picture looks even worse.”