ERIE, PA. - Freshmen walk past a farmhouse and brook to get to Penn State Erie's Plastics Technology Center, and when they walk out with their diploma after four years, they earn an average of more than $35,000. Erie is a hotbed of plastics processors. Most are small and independently owned. Plastics industry leaders approached the college in 1984 about a plastics program to ease the always-present shortage of skilled workers, kicking in an initial $1 million to help address the problem.
In 1987, a four-year degree program began in plastics engineering technology. Students rapidly became engaged in research. They typically produce about half the student technical papers at any Annual Technical Conference of the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Penn State Erie, also called Behrend College, quickly has become one of the top plastics schools in the nation.
The crowning moment came in 1994, when the School of Engineering and Engineering Technology moved into a new, 55,000-square-foot Plastics Technology Center. Its architecture is dramatic. Four buildings housing the future of U.S. manufacturing are linked by a two-story atrium with lots of sunshine and uncovered ductwork.
PTC's showcase is a 7,000-square-foot laboratory with overhead cranes and five new injection molding machines, two extruders and other equipment, most of it loaned on consignment.
This spring, 48 students will graduate with bachelor's degrees. Most come from the Erie region, which extends into parts of Ohio and New York.
By giving money and support, and hiring plastics graduates, processors in the Erie area are being paid back with a solid pool of talent.
That helps the Erie industry remain competitive worldwide, according to local plastics officials.
Local development agencies treat plastics with respect. Plastics is the most important core industry in Erie, otherwise notable as a town on the receiving end of Lake Erie's winter snow machine.
Within the county, manufacturing accounts for nearly 30 percent of all non-agricultural jobs - about double the national average, according to Commerce Department data.
About 5,200 Erie County residents are employed in rubber and plastics. Those jobs account for 15 percent of local manufacturing jobs - some five times higher than Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. Local plastics jobs pay an average of $10 an hour.
``Plastics has become a model'' for Penn State Erie's future because of the tight relationship with industry, said John Lilley, provost and dean.
Lilley's office is in a farmhouse, a relaxing walk from the Plastics Technol-ogy Center. The campus land was a donated estate, given in 1948 by Mary Behrend in memory of her husband, Ernst, an industrialist. The campus is close-knit, with just 3,200 students and one small dorm.
Joseph Prischak, who owns Plastek Industries Inc., Erie's largest molding company and, with 1,700 people, the county's third-largest employer, would have liked to have a local program for two of his three sons. Douglas went to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. Daniel went to Kansas to attend Pittsburg State University.
That lament led Prischak to the Behrend campus. Separately, but at about the same time, Dean Lilley also talked with Hoop Roche Jr., of the family-owned Erie Plastics Co. in Corry, Pa. Other firms joined the effort.
Plastek is tied for 47th in Plastics News' latest ranking of North American injection molders, with estimated molding sales of $74 million. Prischak took a recent visitor on a high-energy tour of seven buildings in an hour - all near Plastek's headquarters in Erie. He likes to keep his hands directly involved, so he founded or purchased tooling shops, molding plants, even his own trucking company right in the neighborhood.
Wheeling through a massive molding room filled with more than 50 big Cincinnati Milacron machines, all molding containers for roll-on, stick and gel deodorant, Prischak points to show how the product flows through a conveying system to the room next door. There, highly automated equipment does assembly, decorating and packing.
According to Prischak, Plastek manufactures 500 million deodorant containers a year. Other highly automated lines injection or blow mold, then finish packaging for cosmetics.
Ironically, companies owned by Prischak and Roche compete in some markets. Roche's company, with 175,000 square feet in Corry, specializes in long runs of consumer products.
``These parts literally don't get handled at all,'' Roche said during a tour of Erie Plastics.
Injection presses running 64-cavity molds spew out those white push-pull close tops for dishwashing liquids. Tubes air-convey them through a passage in the wall to an assembly machine, where they are blown into a big box, 34,000 to a box.
Erie Plastics is the sole closure supplier for laundry products at Procter & Gamble Co., Roche said. The other major customer is Gillette Co.
Roche stays active at the college. He is chairman of the council of fellows that oversees Penn State Erie. So far, Erie Plastics has hired five Penn State graduates. One of them, Stephen Getsy, is representative of how many students - even today - stumble onto the Erie program. Getsy, who had worked summers at a plastics plant, enrolled as an aerospace engineer. After seeing the plastics program, he switched majors. He worked one summer at Erie Plastics, which hired him immediately upon graduation in its in-house design operation for customers.
Most Erie County plastics companies are small, family-owned firms with deep roots. The owners of one, Plastikos Inc., are Erie natives. The 7-year-old firm focuses on molding small connectors for electrical and fiber-optic markets.
The goal of a strong Erie unites the industry, said Philip Tredway president of Erie Molded Plastics Inc. in Erie.
``I try to sell Erie Molded Plastics first and then I try to sell Erie as a great place to bring in plastics business,'' he said.
Richard Progelhof, director of Penn State Erie's School of Engineering & Engineering Technology, has big plans. A two-year associate degree program will begin this coming fall, with about 50 students. Later the school wants to offer a master's of engineering degree in manufacturing systems engineering, focusing on plastics. Longer term, Progelhof wants to start technology centers for rotational molding and thermoforming.
William Witkowski, president of Port Erie Plastics Inc., a custom molder in Harborcreek, Pa., said molders know that supporting the college helps everybody.
The program happened ``only because of the plastics industry,'' he said. ``They're putting together these programs to help make people more employable and it's great, it's working.''