The future home of Tec Centro Southwest. Inset are Carlos Graupera, president of SACA, left; and Timothy Bianchi, vice president of academic affairs at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, right. (Photos: Tim Stuhldreher)
The future home of Tec Centro Southwest. Inset are Carlos Graupera, president of SACA, left; and Timothy Bianchi, vice president of academic affairs at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, right. (Photos: Tim Stuhldreher)

Tec Centro Southwest was in the works before anyone had heard of coronavirus.

But with the pandemic leading to unprecedented job losses and economic stress, particularly among Lancaster's minority and low-income communities, Carlos Graupera and Timothy Bianchi knew they had to make it a reality sooner rather than later.

Graupera is the president of the nonprofit SACA, the Spanish American Civic Association. Bianchi is the vice president for academic affairs at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

Their collaboration, Tec Centro Southwest, will debut in early 2021 at the former Carol B. Winters Family Advocacy Center at the corner of High and Laurel streets in Lancaster.

There, it will house the "Workforce Recovery Project," offering short-term job training to individuals who have lost employment due to Covid-19.

Classes will be offered in plumbing, electrical technology, and HVAC maintenance and refrigeration, as well as English as a Second Language and adult basic education.

"It's our goal with this project to put people back to work," Bianchi said.

CARES Act support

On Wednesday, the Lancaster County commissioners agreed to chip in. The county will provide up to $300,000 from federal CARES Act funds toward the $430,000 SACA needs to purchase equipment for the training programs that will be offered.

SACA will verify and document that participants' job losses were Covid-related — a requirement for using CARES Act funds for retraining.

SACA will provide the remaining $130,000 for equipment, along with another $100,000 for building renovation, Graupera said.

The technology classes, taught by Thaddeus Stevens College faculty, will have 15 to 20 students and will get under way by the end of March. Tuition will be low, and set on a sliding scale based on ability to pay, Graupera said.

"If you don't have the money but you have the interest to advance, we'll have your back," he said.

The training will qualify graduates for high-demand jobs paying starting wages of around $16 to $24 an hour, he said.

Commissioner Ray D'Agostino said he looks forward to hearing "good things" about Tec Centro Southwest, noting that SACA and Thaddeus Stevens College both have strong track records.

The economic havoc wrought by Covid-19 is expected to linger even after vaccines are widely available, so getting individuals retrained "is good for everyone," Commissioner Craig Lehman said.

Bianchi said Tec Centro Southwest will be able to graduate up to 150 students a year. Those who want to continue their education further will be able to transfer their credits to Thaddeus Stevens and pursue an associate's degree. On average, there are 16 job openings for each graduate of the two-year public technical college.

Training for careers

Tec Centro Southwest is an outgrowth of Tec Centro, the bilingual job training center SACA opened in Lancaster's southeast in 2014.

It offers courses in culinary arts, health care and English as a Second Language and provides job placement assistance. Faculty from Thaddeus Stevens College teach a facilities maintenance class that incorporates plumbing, HVAC and electrical technology — an arrangement that formed the foundation for the new venture.

The opportunity for more programs in the trades was clear, Graupera said, but space was limited at Tec Centro's building at 102 Chester St.

Hence the idea for Tec Centro Southwest and the acquisition of the Winters Center, which SACA purchased in February for $3 million from IBS Development, a Perry County developer.

The populations SACA serves have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Graupera said. The official unemployment rate in Lancaster city is around 18% for Latinos and 20% for Blacks, and that's likely an undercount, he said.

Many southeast and southwest residents work in service industries, particularly hotels and restaurants, where the economic effects of the pandemic were especially severe.

"Many of these jobs will not be returning," Graupera said, making retraining essential to the community's economic future.

Locally, annual compensation for experienced plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians range from the low $50,000s to the low $60,000s, according to data compiled by the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board. There are expected to be more than 1,000 job openings in those fields over the next three years, said Valerie Hatfield, the board's strategic information officer.

Short-term programs like those Tec Centro is planning, she said, "have a high success rate when it comes to credential attainment and job placement."

Down the road, Graupera and Bianchi hope to further overhaul and upgrade 57 Laurel St. and expand the course offerings. Tec Centro Southwest is seeking state grants toward that end.

Tim Stuhldreher