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Filling the niches in Pennsylvania‚??s economic future COMMENTARY THOMAS P. LEARY


February 20. 2013 4:52AM
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Federal economists estimate that 2 million jobs go unfilled today as a result of skills, training and education gaps. The same result is true in Pennsylvania. In the report submitted last year by the Governor's Manufacturing Advisory Council it was noted that the number of new workers entering the industry, combined with the growth in manufacturing and the number of skilled workers retiring, has left a staggering gap of available skilled workers.


Simply put: Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren't ready.


Gone are the days when all that was required of a worker to succeed was to get his or her foot in the door and work hard. Today, while hard work is still important, post-secondary education is required and frequent retraining is necessary to staying current in one's field. In fact, it's estimated that 1.5 million job vacancies in the country consist of jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree.


For 50 years, the state's 14 community colleges have served this exact niche. As open-access institutions, Luzerne County Community College and its fellow institutions are often the only avenue to education and training. Given the appropriate resources, these institutions can be the solution to Pennsylvania's skills gap.


But the colleges are keenly aware that filling the skills gap is an ongoing – and growing – challenge. State budget constraints have compounded this challenge and are restricting what the colleges are able to provide. After years of being severely under funded by the state, community colleges are struggling to meet the growing demand of students and employers turning to these institutions for education and training. In addition, countless veterans return from overseas and look to community colleges for retraining and re-employment.


Nevertheless, Luzerne County Community College and Pennsylvania's other 13 community colleges stand poised to lead the charge and help repair the skills gap. These institutions are willing partners in the task of educating a 21st century workforce and in making significant contributions in the state's economic recovery. We are already actively engaged in this enterprise across the commonwealth, and given the appropriate resources, will gladly expand our efforts. Community colleges can have a significant impact in lessening the skills gap and getting Pennsylvanians back to work, but we need the state to be our partner.


In addition to community colleges' role in workforce training, we also offer the most affordable and accessible pathway to the baccalaureate. A recent study by American Association of Community Colleges found that more than one-quarter of those who earn a bachelor's degree began their higher ed experience at a community college and transferred to a four-year institution along the way. Nearly half of bachelor's degree recipients take at least one course at a community college.


Research shows that transfer from a community college to a four-year institution not only works, but also saves money. Further, students who start at a community college and transfer to a four-year university are just as successful as those who begin at a four-year institution.


Maintaining access and affordability to these institutions, and ensuring they have the resources to train students for 21st century jobs cannot and should not be sacrificed in the Governor's 2013-14 state budget.


As the Governor finalizes his proposed budget we ask him to consider what's at stake. The future competitiveness of our state, the ability for our businesses to thrive and our students to become valuable workers hinges on equipping community colleges with necessary resources to provide the services they were intended to do. In the midst of a damaging skills-gap, a strategic investment into Pennsylvania's community colleges is more important than ever.


Our state cannot afford to stand idly by as the skills gap continues to widen.


Thomas P. Leary is president of Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke.




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