Erie, Pa. — Penn State Erie the Behrend College, is closely tied to plastics manufacturers, through its plastics engineering technology degree, internships and three-semester capstone projects that team students with an industry partner.
The industry ties pay off.
"What's so special at Behrend?" asked Oladipo Onipede, associate director of academics for the school of engineering. "What's special is, our students get jobs. That's one of our strengths, so we tend to focus on that a lot."
Onipede was a keynote speaker at Penn State Erie's Innovation and Emerging Plastics Technologies Conference, held June 19-20. The annual conference draws students and industry leaders from around the country to the campus in Erie. One machinery executive came from Germany to make a presentation.
The connection to industry is part of the historical fabric of Erie, a hotbed of plastics processors. Industry leaders approached the local college in 1984 about starting a plastics program. Local plastics executives put up an initial $1 million.
Those early supporters included Joseph Prischak, who founded what is now Erie's largest molding company, Plastek Industries Inc., and Hoop Roche Jr. of Erie Plastics Co.
Ten years later, the School of Engineering and Engineering Technology moved into a gleaming Plastics Technology Center. The highlight: a 10,500-square-foot plastics research and industrial lab packed with processing machinery. Penn State Erie leaders say it's the largest plastics training lab in the country.
Back in 1984, a lack of skilled workers plagued the plastics industry. Even in Erie, a region with a widely recognized plastics industry, key positions went unfilled. And that's the same problem today, plastics industry leaders say. It's even worse now because so many older plastics veterans are retiring.
Today, Penn State Erie enrolls about 160 students seeking the four-year plastics engineering technology degree.
The engineering graduates help the local manufacturing economy, Onipede said in his speech that kicked off the plastics conference.
"Many times, we look at the general Erie area as losing population, but I know students who are from outside the region that end up staying and working in the region," Onipede said. Graduating students from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other cities get jobs and stay in the Erie area.
One big lure is easy access to Lake Erie and the picturesque beaches at Presque Isle State Park. Erie also has an amusement park near the lake, water parks, a casino, the minor league baseball Erie SeaWolves and the Erie Otters, a junior hockey team that often sends its young players to the NHL.
But access to jobs is the biggest draw.
"It's expensive to go to college, and you have to look at the return on investment for the students," Onipede said. "What are they going to do in the end? And this engagement with companies, I think we do that better than most schools in the country."