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Op-ed: Support of higher education creates a win-win for the region

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We face competition daily. Whether it is the circle of life,
playing sports, interviewing for a job or investing in the stock market, there
are normally losers for every winner.  Competition isn’t a bad thing. It forges character, teaches life lessons
and, in my opinion, makes the nation great. But once in a while, something
comes along where everyone associated with it wins and there are no losers. If
there was a “perfect storm” where everyone associated with an investment would
win, would you make the investment?

As a region, we are competing against other regions in the U.S. (and the
world) to attract the businesses and investments necessary to grow our local
economy. Winning this competition is vital, as it results in higher-paying
jobs, tax revenue and a stronger economy. There are many factors that
contribute to being able to win this competition, particularly having a strong
anchoring city and access to quality higher education linked to workforce
development.

The creation of Harrisburg University of  Science and Technology is an example of a
perfect storm that benefits everyone involved. Harrisburg University
is the win-win for the region. It is a strategic sure thing because it is born
of this community. Starting a nonprofit, private university isn’t easy, it
doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t stand a chance at surviving without strong
community support. Fortunately, when private corporations, news media and elected
officials in Central Pennsylvania recognized that we had a growing shortage of
science- and technology-educated graduates in the region to grow our
knowledge-based economy, we worked together to establish a science-,
technology-, engineering- and mathematics- (STEM) focused university that could
fill the void over the next decade. This initiative complements the regional
workforce efforts of other well-established colleges and universities in our
region, including Harrisburg Area Community College
and Penn State. Today, we are fortunate to be in
a region where the integration of higher education with workforce development
and economic development has been achieved.

Recognizing the benefits to our community and our firm,
Gannett Fleming Inc., through our GeoDecisions division, supports the
university’s goal to produce high-quality graduates to fill our workforce
needs.

GeoDecisions struggled to expand its workforce to meet its
growing staffing needs. To solve this problem, GeoDecisions reached out to Harrisburg University to jointly develop and teach
the curriculum for a GIS program. This program would allow students to graduate
with a highly sought-after skill and also contribute to filling

GeoDecisions’ staffing needs.

From a modest beginning, the GIS program at the university
has grown from GeoDecisions’ staff members teaching one class to the
development of a robust curriculum with seven employees serving as corporate
adjunct faculty members. The company offered flexibility to permit its
employees to teach courses during the day and provides paid internships (each
year) to give students a real-world experience. This was a substantial
financial investment and a significant time commitment for the staff who
volunteered to serve as adjunct professors. 
This investment has paid off, as we are thrilled to have hired two
high-quality graduates for full-time positions, and have new interns working in
the company. The future looks bright for this success story to continue.

Local businesses need a strong anchor city and access to
quality graduates. The investment that Gannett Fleming has made to its
community by investing in Harrisburg
University has paid off
because we are creating our own workforce.

Here’s the win-win. Harrisburg University
benefits by having a curriculum that links college courses directly to job
requirements by having corporate faculty share their expertise in the
classrooms. Harrisburg
itself is a winner because a successful STEM-focused independent university in
the heart of its downtown attracts additional businesses to the region. Gannett
Fleming and GeoDecisions are winners because we are creating a specialized
workforce while serving our community. If you poll the corporate faculty
members who teach in the classrooms, they could explain why they are winners,
too. But, of course, the big winners are the young adults who have access to a
quality, experiential education, who will graduate with skills and a pathway to
a career in our growing knowledge-based economy.

As the university’s physical presence expands, its science,
technology, engineering and mathematics undergraduate and graduate programs
will serve as some of the building blocks of the region’s economy. What a great
opportunity for business in the region to capitalize on these perfect storms.

Robert M. Scaer is senior vice president and chief
information officer with East Pennsboro Township-based engineering firm Gannett
Fleming Inc. and president of GeoDecisions.

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