Study bolsters case for community college – Something good happened in Erie, 3/13/2020

As against the grain as it seems to write (or think) about anything other than coronavirus this week, the show must go on. Luckily, the whole world didn’t completely shut down until about Thursday, and Wednesday contained a bit of good news:

The GoErie article nails the lede here, so I’ll just quote it in its entirety:

“A first-of-its-kind report says Erie County’s workforce development system is disconnected and “fractured” and that the lack of a standalone community college is a hindrance to efforts to build a talent pipeline.”

Matthew Rink, Erie Times-News, 3/11/2020

So, the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership hired a consultant to identify the “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats” to Erie’s workforce training and development infrastructure. Basically, the report seeks to answer the question, “How good is Erie at getting people ready to get to work?” Answer: not so good.

So far, this doesn’t sound like a good news story. The report, titled “The 21st Century Plan to Effectively Grow the Talent Pipeline,” came up with the following observations, among others:

  • The current [workforce development] system is “disconnected” and there are not enough “relevant training facilities” to meet the needs of various business sectors;
  • High school students are not prepared to enter today’s workforce and only 26% of college graduates remain in Erie;

Recall that Erie downtown’s 16501 is the poorest zip code in America, and Erie County’s median income is only about 80% of the Pennsylvania average. There aren’t many explanations for this. Basically, it comes down to believing one of two things: either we as a people are uniquely undeserving of high salaries, or a lack of opportunity and other structural factors prevent us from reaching our potential. This report says to look behind Door #2.

Now, the Garner Economics report doesn’t just say a community college is all we’ll need to declare “mission accomplished;” it isn’t. They also recommended we establish something like a comprehensive plan not for economic development (like the plan we already have and are implementing) but for training. They are pretty clear in concluding a community college will be a major piece of this puzzle, though.

“I was really taken aback that Erie County didn’t have a community college for the size of the region. What community colleges offer is the ability to do the type of education and training that enables people to come in and out of the system,” said Debra Lyons, a principle strategist for Garner Economics to Erie Times-News’ Matthew Rink.

The timing couldn’t be much better for this type of report, either, as the Pennsylvania Board of Education hearing on Erie’s community college application is slated for next week. Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership CEO James Grunke might be called to speak at that hearing, and if so he will now be armed with a persuasive new document in favor of helping our area round out its educational portfolio.

Remember, in the end, whether any public investment (read: spending of our tax dollars) is worthwhile depends on just one thing: whether the public benefit will exceed the public cost. Our status quo is to have Erie’s business community watch college educated workers leave at alarming rates, and for our workforce salaries stuck far beneath the state average.

Meanwhile, we have a third party consultant pointing to our lack of a community college as a unique and glaring hole that amounts to low hanging fruit, just waiting to be picked and eaten to help us solve our persistent problem. That fruit is well within reach, with a community college application already having been made and awaiting a verdict,

There is momentum, and this report adds to it. Any news that could help our area dig out of our long-term hole is welcome news, indeed. In a week dominated by quite justified coronavirus headlines, let’s not let this good news go completely passed over.

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