Erie is preparing it’s workforce for the return of industry. But a traditional community college isn’t part of the equation yet.
From the back of Barry Grossman’s house, you get a panoramic view of Lake Erie: miles and miles of uninterrupted lake, anchored on one side by the popular Presque Isle State Park. And in the distance, a large ship making its way slowly across the lake.
“Last two days, I’ve seen four major lake liners go by,” said Grossman, the former Erie County executive. “Usually you don’t see them this time of year.”
Grossman hopes that means industry is starting to pick up around the lake again. But he worries Erie’s workforce won’t be ready for a big turnaround.
“There is a company here that does ship repair,” said Grossman. “When I was county executive, touring it, they couldn’t get enough welders. They were bringing welders in from California.”
To improve Erie’s workforce, Grossman wanted to bring a community college to the area. In Pennsylvania, there are 14 community college systems with 99 branch campuses and instructional sites. Of the 15 largest cities in the state, Erie is the only one without a community college location.
It’s not that the city doesn’t have educational opportunities. There are four universities — Mercyhurst, Gannon, Edinboro and Penn State Erie, The Behrend College — and a medical school.
“But there are lots of people in the population [who] aren’t geared for a four-year college-degree type training,” Grossman said. “The community college serves that other portion which I think remains largely unserved.”
Grossman’s community college proposal was voted down in 2010. He thinks the local universities were opposed to the idea.
“And when you have four colleges in a relatively small county, obviously, they can exert a lot of political pressure,” he said.
The community’s college
Now, those same universities are stepping in to try to fill the void.
Mercyhurst, a private Catholic university, has billboards advertising its two-year degrees at “community college affordability.” Edinboro University has created Porreco College, a two-year degree program which it is calling the “community’s college.”
In the 1980s, Edinboro was gifted a working, 26-acre farm. In the past two years, the space has found new life as Porreco College: 400 students, mostly low-income, are working towards associates degrees at low cost.
Janet Bowker, director of operations at Porreco College, says the associates degrees and workforce training programs are meant to be completed quickly, so students can get back out into the workforce quickly.
“They’re helping their families quickly and they are helping our community,” she said.
The school is creating partnerships with local companies and tech schools in the area. First Energy Penelec, for example. The company trains it’s future utility linemen with hands-on work at their facility two and a half days a week.
And then, “two and a half days a week, they are here on campus taking math, electrical courses, a physics course,” said Nathan Ritchey, vice president of strategic initiatives at Edinboro.
They also take financial well-being and diversity classes. In two years, Ritchey says, they’re utility linemen and college graduates.
The “community’s college” looks a lot like a community college: two-year degrees, low tuition, and anyone can sign up for classes.
Not just another college
Critics say Porreco’s programs are overly academic and don’t offer the hands-on job training Erie needs. Grossman, for one, says academia is not the place for workforce training.
“I wish [universities] would step back and say, ‘we can’t be all things to everyone. We’re training accountants and teachers, and suddenly we want to be training welders.'”
And, community college isn’t just low-cost higher education. Done right, it’s a vital part of a community’s development. Look at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, Pennsylvania’s oldest.
“Workforce is the number one issue for any employer coming into an urban setting or staying in an urban setting,” says Dr. John ‘Ski’ Sygielski, president of HACC. “Community colleges are right at that nexus of helping those businesses identify underemployed or unemployed individuals, giving them the training and keeping those businesses vibrant in those cities.”
HACC works with companies, local government and chambers of commerce in all the areas they serve: Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Gettysburg and Lebanon. The school has grown by 77 percent since 2002 as part of the region’s effort to get back to its feet.
The administration at Porreco College has a similar vision for the school. But it’s not yet clear what role it will play in Erie’s development. The community’s college graduates its first class this spring.
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, was misidentified. It has been corrected.