Brain Drain’s a Damned Shame

Here in Erie, the rallying cry for many years has been to stop our “Brain Drain”.  The problem is that I’m not sure anyone here really knows how to do that under the current modus operandi.

It’s tough to accept that the manufacturing hub will never be what it was, it’s like losing your security blanket as a child.  There’s nothing that can be done to stop this process, but I don’t believe the loss of manufacturing jobs has anything to do with brain drain at all.  The great majority of manufacturing jobs do not require a college degree at all, and in some cases, even a technical school degree.  The standard of what’s considered a good manufacturing job in this area (plastics, for the most part) in fact can’t even pay you at a rate that will place you as a “middle-class” citizen.  Temp to hire plastics jobs often start at or just above minimum wage.  The high end manufacturing (GE, etc.) are so high in demand that you need either a mountain of experience or a friend in the right place.  Oh, and a degree in some sort of relevant field.  I wouldn’t call these obstacles to getting a “good” job insurmountable, but that’s not our point of discussion here.

A tourism based economy is pushed heavily in this area.  Erie has a glut of natural beauty and features for the entertainment of the masses, but it can never be a true economic base, it is a piece of the puzzle.  Not only does it not pay well enough, it’s unstable and requires a tremendous amount of money to turn over.  Just ask the Erie Convention Center Authority.  Additionally, what you’re doing with a tourism based economy is placing your future, your prosperity, in the hands of other cities.  You’re not actually building prosperity for yourself, you’re drawing off of other areas, gambling that they will be there to support you.

If you go into a college classroom and ask the students, by a show of hands, who wants to work on a line or in a hotel as a career, very few would raise their hands.  Some may recognize what it can be worth, but for the most part there are aspirations of management, leadership and presenting new ideas.  Many of these students are going to take their ideas and dreams and plug them in to another city.  There is a myth that things can’t be accomplished here in Erie, that in order to run a successful business you must move to a larger area.  In the age we are in, the age of social media, instant contact and unprecedented levels of connectivity, you can accomplish exactly the same thing here as you can anywhere else.

There are many things in this post that are easier said than done, for sure.  Where do you draw the line between focusing on retaining the jobs and business that we have and promoting new growth?  I can think of an IBM commercial that says “small businesses are the engine of a smarter tomorrow”, and I agree.  It all has to start somewhere.  When you’ve been broken down as we have, when you’ve hit rock bottom, you have to break down every principle that you maintain and re-examine what you’re doing.  You cannot rebuild a house using blocks alone.  You must use a variety of materials and tools to build on what is a solid foundation in the remnants of a mighty manufacturing base.  If there is not more of an effort made to incubate new ideas, new businesses, then we’re going the way of Braddock.  We cannot continue to blindly stay the course, with a small number of people reaching out to other communities to try to pull in business.  The expansion has to start here, right in our city, with our people and tools and talents, pooled together to create a new economic base (again, tourism is not a base), ushering in a new era of prosperity for our area.

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