Community College – A Path to Transformation
Since coming to my new home, I have had the opportunity to meet with more than 450 business leaders to ask them what their challenges and barriers to success are today. In nearly every case, the number one concern of our employers is workforce - the available pipeline of talent they need to continue operations in Erie. Many of our businesses are anticipating a staggering number of retirements in the next decade, and we simply do not have the local talent to fill the void left by our aging workforce.
While our talent base is a challenge for our existing businesses, it is also critical to our business attraction strategy. I have worked in communities where businesses chose to relocate or expand their operations to that community because they see there is a highly trained workforce readily available to help their businesses thrive. This is the missing link in efforts to transform our community.
Elected leaders are currently in discussions with the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) to create a bricks and mortar campus in Erie County. This campus will provide Erie County students with the hands on training needed to pursue many good paying advanced manufacturing jobs right here in Erie County. I commend our leaders for their commitment to a physical location in Erie County. This local presence and accessibility is essential to growing our local economy.
Our leaders are also working to keep any costs to local taxpayers low. The proposed partnership will result in operational funding being provided by the Commonwealth, and not by the County. For decades, Erie County taxpayers have been paying for community colleges in other parts of Pennsylvania. It is now Erie County’s time to benefit. The proposed partnership will avoid more than $11 million in operating costs that would otherwise be paid by the County of Erie.
Our local workforce is not positioned to attract new businesses to this community. In our recently completed Target Industry Strategy, we found that Erie County is following a national trend of labor force participation decline. From 2012 through 2018, the labor force participation rate in the county fell 3.3%, whereas the rate dropped by only 0.4% in Pennsylvania and 0.6% nationally.
It is imperative that we take control of this situation now. We cannot wait any longer. We must identify and implement resources and programs that will allow us to turn this trajectory of decline into a story of economic growth and vitality. There are many opportunities to grow and develop local talent for industries including plastics manufacturing, electrical equipment manufacturing, metal fabrication and metal products, and research and development in engineering and life sciences.
A community college with a strong presence and physical location in Erie County is critical to seizing these opportunities and to transforming our community. The Erie Regional Chamber & Growth Partnership stands with our community leaders who are prioritizing the need to bring a solution for a skills-based community college to Erie. The business sector has identified a significant shortfall in the ability to recruit and train a skilled workforce. A bricks and mortar training facility is a critical component toward filling that gap, providing opportunities to career pathways for our residents and delivering the workforce needs our businesses are so desperately seeking.
The bottom line is Erie needs a local community college. Regardless of what name is on the building or what entity owns it, the services must be delivered. The proposed agreement with the NPRC provides exactly that and gives this community a rare opportunity to grow a talented and innovative workforce.
I urge members of this community to join me in supporting our leaders as they continue to work collaboratively toward a successful partnership with the NPRC in creating an Erie campus. Only then can we move forward with unlocking the potential of our local talent. Failing to do so will significantly obstruct our efforts for years to come.
James Grunke is the CEO of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership