State grants to help power Erie workforce

The Erie region's loss of manufacturing jobs over decades, especially at major employers like GE Transportation in Lawrence Park, tends to distort the region's current truth.

The losses are real. But so are the jobs, many of them paying family-sustaining wages, that remain here in advanced manufacturing, plastics, the building trades and more.

Employers for years have been calling attention to vacancies they say they cannot fill in part because of a dearth of skilled workers. It is one of the reasons business stalwarts, like the Manufacturer and Business Association, lined up to support an application to create a bricks-and-mortar community college in Erie. They say their worker shortage might only grow as skilled, veteran employees age out of the workforce.

The state Department of Education has not ruled on Erie County's community college application. But recent days have brought news that stakeholders, again, rallying around common problems and speaking in one voice, have landed critical state grant funding for workforce development programs. The total, approaching $1 million, could help bridge the gap between the many poor and underemployed here and the opportunities available in local factories and businesses, including digital economy jobs hoped for in the Erie Innovation District.

On Feb. 6, Gov. Tom Wolf's administration awarded more than $460,000 in PAsmart grants to boost apprenticeship programs in advanced manufacturing, plastics and the building and construction industries. As reporter Jim Martin detailed, one piece of that — $45,950 — will support, for example, an initiative headed by the Greater Erie Community Action Committee. Working with Executool and Penn State Behrend, GECAC will create a plastics curriculum and offer on-the-job training at Executool to high school juniors and seniors and recently graduated students.

On Monday, news came of a separate $500,000 PAsmart grant, this one to develop a computer science curriculum at the Erie School District. The chairman of the Mercyhurst University Computer Science Department wrote the grant application and the school will help the district craft the K-12 learning program, secure hardware and train teachers, all with an eye to preparing students for careers in the digital economy.

Students will have the chance, in turn, to take part in cool summer programming — coding camps at Mercyhurst's new MCPc Cyber Education Center. What's more, the Mercyhurst-led Erie Innovation District will seek to create internships and new jobs in companies affiliated with the Innovation District. According to the state, computing jobs are expected to grow in Erie at a rate of 9.1 percent between 2014-2024.

This funding should boost stability for local employers and open life-changing doors of opportunity to Erie's young and underemployed people. Without collaboration across sectors and silos, it would not have happened. It is more evidence of the new spirit moving the region forward.