Erie Region's Workers, Employers Still Need Community College

Originally published by Erie-Times News

Commentary | June 3, 2012

Our city gets a bad rap. It's small, yes, and a bit provincial, too, but the "Mistake on the Lake" it is not.

Erie boasts some of the most gorgeous sunsets I've seen, plus a beautiful state park that attracts millions of tourists annually. The city also provided me with a good education, so that even as a first-generation college student, I had a solid foundation for success.

But many outsiders see "Dreary Erie" as a dying town, a former manufacturing powerhouse that is continuing to languish a decade after the International Paper mill, a producer of middle class jobs for a century, closed its doors. And local leaders continue to blame manufacturing jobs gone overseas for the county's 7.1 percent unemployment rate.

But Erie has a sizable opportunity to change its negative stigma. County leaders have an opportunity to get laid-off workers into jobs, boost educational attainment among adults, and help move some of the county's poor children out of the cycle of poverty. What county leaders don't have -- or haven't demonstrated they have -- is the political will to do it.

Despite the county's 7.1 percent unemployment, some 7,500 jobs are open right now, waiting for skilled workers to fill them. They need not workers with only a high school diploma, but workers who are proficient in analytical, math, and science skills -- workers with substantive postsecondary education and experience with targeted training in their field.

A community college is a proven, cost-effective way to train local workers for these jobs. These colleges provide low-cost, flexible degree and certificate programs for working adults with families and for low-income students who can't afford flagship universities.

While Erie County has many postsecondary options, such as two-year, for-profit institutions and four-year, public and private universities, tuition at these institutions ranges from $7,750 to $27,657 per year. A community college, tailoring its programs to employers' needs, could provide a degree for about $2,500 per year -- for an education that would give graduates the skills they need to walk right into GE Transportation's locomotive plant and get a job paying $25 to $27 per hour.

A community college could also funnel graduates into high-demand jobs in health care and information technology, both supporting and building the middle class and feeding the local economy.

Erie County had a viable plan to establish a community college of its own -- a plan with a demonstrated need and solid funding structure. Yet Erie County Council, for reasons that perhaps were rooted in outdated ideas about higher education and an overall reluctance to make short-term investments for longer term economic gain, shot down this affordable venture in the region's future.

GE Transportation's decision in 2011 to build a new locomotive plant in Texas, rather than further expanding operations in Erie, should have illustrated the problem for county leaders: The county's largest employer chose to go elsewhere. Why? Because Erie hasn't invested in itself.

The community college also has perhaps the best chance for long-term, sustainable funding: table games revenues.

But opportunities like this don't present themselves forever; the table games revenues, which have been accumulating since 2010, will only sit in an escrow account for 18 more months. After January 2014, the funds will be re-diverted, dissolving one of the region's best opportunities to revitalize itself and its workforce.

Erie has real potential to shake its "dreary" image. But without action, potential is nothing more than that.