Build a community college to revive the local economy, a consultant told Erie, Pennsylvania. But it didn’t happen, writes Mandy Zatynski, an Erie native, in an Education Sector report. Opportunity Denied: How One County Fought For, and Lost, a Community College explains what happened.
Erie has four-year colleges and for-profit technical schools, but “neither provided the affordability and flexibility that many local residents needed,” Zatynski writes.
. . . more than any other factor, the college fell victim to outdated ideas about higher education and public reluctance to make short-term investments for longer term economic gain. The college was also damaged by the anti-tax mindset that gripped the nation at the height of the tea party movement, a conservative base that rallied against tax increases and government spending, no matter what the cause.
Once, International Paper would hire new workers out of high school, train them and enable them to earn a middle-class wage, Zatynski writes. The paper mill closed in 2001. Now Erie’s remaining employers want skilled workers with strong science, math, and analytical skills. A high school diploma is not enough.
“We need a higher level of technical expertise,” said Ralph Pontillo, president of the Manufacturer and Business Association in Erie. “You don’t run the machines anymore; you run the computers that run the machines.”
While healthcare and education are increasingly big employers in Erie, manufacturing remains the second-largest sector thanks in part to a large General Electric locomotive plant, which employs about 5,500. County planners predict that manufacturing jobs will grow by 2 percent between 2010 and 2040. But Pontillo says manufacturing shops are also facing an immediate demand: they need skilled workers now to replace longtime, retiring machinists. And despite the region’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate, they can’t find them. “The disconnect,” Pontillo says, “is that [workers] are not prepared to take on these positions, even the most basic positions.”
Erie County has 7,500 unfilled jobs because of the skills gap, leaders estimate.
High school graduation rates are higher than the state average in Erie and its suburbs, but fewer adults have completed a bachelor’s degree. “We have a high graduation rate and (a low) rate of people who attend postsecondary education. What does that tell you?” asks Erie County Executive Barry Grossman. “It’s the absence of a community college.”