Guest Voice: Is Erie Ready to Retrain GE Workers? (EdSector Archive)
28 June 2013 | by Mandy Zatynski
It is easy to see now what Erie residents should have feared in 2011.
When the leaders of GE Transportation decided back then to open a new locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas, rather than expanding operations here, the decision set the tone for news that was even more unwelcome: the elimination of 1,050 jobs.
Lorenzo Simonelli, chief executive of GE Transportation, could not have sent a stronger message to Erie if he had handwritten it and personally delivered it to Erie County leaders: Until Erie invests more in training its younger generation and in workforce development, industry won't invest in Erie. In fact, as with International Paper, which shut its plant here in 2001, industry will actively disinvest.
Erie has long fallen short in providing the sort of high-tech training a corporation like GE requires. Recently, 220 employers who responded to an Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership survey said they had almost 2,000 open jobs, but lacked enough skilled workers to fill them. Destination Erie, a consortium formed to revitalize the area's economy, has already identified this jobs-skills mismatch as one of the region's top roadblocks to economic growth.
It is no wonder that GE is investing in cities such as Fort Worth, where GE is partnering with a local community college to train machinists and welders in just four weeks specifically for its new plant.
The loss of so many good GE jobs is a devastating blow. GE has donated millions to education and other Erie causes over the years. And it has provided steady business to more than 100 local companies that are suppliers to the Erie plant and that have staked their futures partly on the plant's success.
But it's important to remember that while GE jobs are gone, the workers are not. What matters now is what Erie will do for the 950 machinists the company will lay off -- many of whom have only the training they got on the job -- and the hundreds of other unemployed Erie workers who are already in line. The county's unemployment rate is now 7.2 percent, and the GE layoffs will likely put it at closer to 8 percent.
The most promising route to progress is education. To lift its workers out of unemployment and away from poverty, Erie must give its workers the skills and training they need to work for nationally competitive companies. As it stands, displaced workers in Erie County have few options for training or postsecondary credentials outside of a traditional four-year degree. Many of those 2,000 open jobs listed by the Regional Chamber are solid "middle jobs," good positions in industries such as manufacturing and health care that require some college, but not necessarily a bachelor's degree.
More than 41 percent of Erieites conclude their education with a high school diploma; nationally, fewer than 29 percent do. Are Erie residents not interested in furthering their education and advancing their careers? Not likely. Rather, the education level is a reflection of the limited and overpriced post-secondary options that cater only to those seeking white-collar work.
The Erie Regional Education and Training Consortium, formed earlier this year, includes the county's public and private not-for-profit universities, plus key players such as the Manufacturer and Business Association. The consortium hopes to facilitate better partnerships among themselves and local businesses to provide new educational options that will increase degree attainment among county residents.
Penn State Behrend and Mercyhurst University officials are turning more attention to two-year programs, but for the average displaced worker, the costs of these programs are often prohibitive. Annual tuition at Behrend reaches almost $14,000 per year, and tuition at Mercyhurst is the highest in the county at $29,037. Its North East campus charges about half as much, but for someone who is unemployed, these are simply not realistic prices.
The county's six for-profit colleges advertise attractive educational programs for health care and information technology, but these schools are graduating students with unmanageable debt. Student loan default rates among the area's for-profit schools are as high as 31 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, indicating that these graduates are unable to find sufficient work to repay their loans. (The national average for all colleges is 13.4 percent, but for for-profit institutions nationally, the average default rate is 22.7 percent.)
In short, none of the educational offerings in Erie County provides the flexibility or affordability of a community college, an option that Erie County Council dismissed in 2010 even though the state had allocated table games revenue to help start such an institution. Coming changes on County Council could give the community college proposal renewed traction, but that would be next year, at best -- delaying an already desperately needed solution for the region.
County Council needs a plan for solving unemployment, and council needs it now. When International Paper closed its plant, a county-commissioned report spelled economic doom if leaders didn't establish a community college or otherwise invest in its workforce. Twelve years later, the picture looks even worse.