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Penn College charts passage of time from an institution to a college

Highly developed equipment obtained by Williamsport Technical Institute in 1945. SUN-GAZETTE ARCHIVES

The ability to adapt to the workforce needs of industry has been the common thread throughout the evolution of what is now the Pennsylvania College of Technology, from its beginning in 1914 to its present incarnation offering hands-on programs through the graduate level to students across the country.

“That’s something I have learned in writing books about the history of the college. I would say the consistent keystone throughout its history is that adaptability,” said Elaine 
J. Lambert, who had been with the college since 1980, having retired
 in 2018 as a special assistant to the president for creative development and public relations.

Lambert had written a series of books for the college’s centennial in 2014, detailing its history.

“The faculty and the administration always seem to have the ability to look into the future and think, this is where the world is heading. This is what our community is going to need . This is what our students are going to need and begin transitioning from an old way of doing thing to a new way of doing things,” she added.

A publication compiled in 1958 by the Williamsport Area School District’s education association speaks to the focus on training people for the workforce.

Williamsport Area Community College was established in 1963 after the passage of the Community College Act. Prior to that, it was the Williamsport Technical Institute. In July 1989, the school joined forces with Pennsylvania State University and became Pennsylvania College of Technology. SUN-GAZETTE ARCHIVES.

“Since its beginning in 1914 as a small industrial arts shop of the Williamsport High School, to its present status as a separate unit of the Williamsport School District, the Institute has proven it can adapt to and meet the demands for trained manpower, regardless of the situation,” stated the publication, “Williamsport Schools Through the Years.”

“War-peace-Depression, all have presented technical training problems,” the publication continued. “Over the years, WTI has come up with a solution to each of the challenges and some of the solutions have gained nationwide attention.”

At the onset, the institute was primarily devoted to woodworking. The publication attributed this to the fact that there were a lot of area woodworking businesses, which could hire students proficient in that area. This lasted until around 1920, when machine shop was added to the curriculum.

When World War I ended, many veterans returning from war came home with a disability and needed to be retrained.

“This led to the establishment of the first adult day school on a full-time basis,” according to the publication.

A shop was set up for this in an old building at the rear of the Pine Street United Methodist Church to offer courses for veterans in pattern making, automotive and electrical. Some also attended the machine shop at the high school.

At the same time, an industrial evening school was begun. When it first opened in 1920, there were 130 people enrolled and by 1958 there were 2,050 students who attended the evening school.

According to the document, “evening conferences in foreman- ship training began in 1927 as a cooperative effort of the school district and the Williamsport Chamber of Commerce to meet the demands for supervisors in rapidly increasing diversified industries in this area.”

It was noted that in the first four years more than 150 foremen from 20 plants took the training.

One of Lambert’s books, “Were You There, the Evolution of a College Campus,” detailed how the school had met the challenge of retraining workers during the the years of the Depression.

One example of this was when a survey in the early 1930’s revealed a shortage of truck drivers, the high school borrowed trucks for evening classes from a local company and began courses for truck drivers.

For its work in retraining the unemployed workers at that time, Williamsport gained national attention and was featured in an article in The Saturday Evening Post, titled “They Build Men into Jobs,” according to Lambert’s book.

Moving forward, during that time due to the increased enrollment in both the high school and adult programs, the district approved the construction of a new vocation building.

By 1941, the two programs–the adult educational and the vocation- al high school–were incorporated into one unit, the Williamsport Technical Institute.

Anticipating the need to train servicemen returning from the war, WTI had set up a scholarship program before the GI Bill of Rights had even been passed in 1944. It was carried out with the cooperation of several local manufacturers who were “willing to invest in build- ing skilled workers for the future,” according to the education association’s publication.

Throughout its history, WTI focused on vocational training to meet the needs of the community’s industries. The institution also partnered with various groups to initiate work-experience programs to train people with disabilities.

Then in 1965 it was renamed the Williamsport Area Community College.

“There was the technical side, but there was also the college transfer side so more and more students were going tHere thinking they were going to do their two years at a community college and then transfer
 to a four-year school and get their degree,” Lambert said.

Locally, the 20 surrounding school districts served as sponsors for WACC.

This meant that the college’s budget had to go through all of the school boards for approval, which was not an easy task, Lambert noted.

“It was a time when factories were closing, when taxpayers’ wallets were held very close. So, it was difficult for those school districts to take money and give it to this other entity,” Lambert said.

In return, for paying their share, the district not only gave students the chance for post-secondary educations, but the college also offered the chance for secondary students to attend technical classes at the college.

“It was a very popular program in the community, but it was also an expensive one. And, as technology grew, as equipment became more expensive, the cost of the education became more expensive,” she explained.

The districts in 1965 had signed on to the program for 20 years, but at the end of that time according to Lambert, it became obvious that they were not going to renew that contract.

“Because the state was not going to allow the college to continue without a local sponsor, it was a very real threat that the college was going to close,” Lambert said of the mid-1980’s.

For awhile the city took on the role of temporary sponsor, but it was not a sustainable situation.

The president of the college, Dr. Robert Breuder, was familiar with mergers, having worked with bank boards. The general consensus, Lambert said, was that the college needed to expand the base of sup- port. The two ideas prompted the college to seek another institution with which to merge.

“And so we started to think about could we do a merger or is there a possibility of doing this differently and finding a merger with another institution. Of course, the institution that comes to mind is Penn State,” Lambert said.

In 1989, after several years of negotiations, WACC became the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

It was a totally different kind of affiliation. The college maintains its own board of directors, so that there would still be local representation, and it maintains the ability to create its own programming.

“Our programs were developed by our faculty in conjunction with workforce as it has always been,” Lambert explained.

This autonomy has allowed the college to develop programs as needs arose and implement them quickly.

When the gas industry moved into the state, the college was able to take a look at the curriculum to see how to prepare students to work in that field.

“We took a look at a whole variety of different programs. We didn’t really develop a major for the gas industry, but we looked at our exist- ing majors and said, how do these apply to the natural gas industry and what are the other things we might want to include in the curriculum so the students are prepared to work in the industry,” she said.

This ability to respond and adjust to the changing needs of industry and society is an aspect which, Lambert stated, is most protected by the administration and faculty, many of who have not only workforce experience but maintain contacts in their fields.

“That’s where it all starts, this knowledge about, oh, this industry is going to be changing, this industry is going to be growing. It’s com- ing directly from faculty who are so well acquainted with these areas that they are able to go back and say, look we really need to change our curriculum,” she said.

“We have to be nimble. We have to be adaptable,” Lambert added.

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