State, higher ed and industry officials call on Louisiana businesses to help fill manufacturing workforce gap

One by one, officials with state, higher education and industry agencies called on Louisiana employers to help them close the gap of skilled workers needed in manufacturing during a panel discussion this morning hosted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Jim Patterson, LABI vice president of governmental relations, opened the discussion by noting the state has made great strides in better communicating and coordinating efforts to produce skilled workers since a number of legislative reforms in 2007 and 2008. But the resources that have become available to employers since then, he said, are largely unknown.

“We want to expose it,” he said.

The manufacturing industry in Louisiana is expected to expand by nearly 9% through 2022, requiring an additional 12,756 workers in the next seven years, according to recently released figures from the Louisiana Workforce Commission. As of 2012, there were an estimated 144,014 manufacturing workers in the state—and that number is poised to grow by nearly 1% annually through 2022.

“We have the partnerships in place with state agencies to help address the issues, but what I need more than anything is active involvement from business and industry,” said Dennis Epps, vice president for workforce at the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, who was among seven panelists.

Joining Epps on the panel today were Lisa French, deputy director of the Louisiana Department of Education; Curt Eysink, executive director of the LWC; Jeff Lynn, executive director of Louisiana Economic Development’s FastStart workforce development program; Linda Kelly, program manager of workforce initiatives for FastStart; Lisa Vosper, associate commissioner of workforce education and training for the Louisiana Board of Regents; and Frank Buck, director of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana.

Each offered attendees an overview of the resources they can provide businesses in the state to help them find the skilled workers they need—and each made it clear they can’t do it by collaborating with one another alone.

“I always put it to our members like this: If you had a supply chain problem, you would do whatever you had to do to fix it,” said Buck, whose association represents manufacturers with fewer than 100 employees. “Well, now you have a workforce problem. What are you going to do to address it?”

LABI hosted the panel discussion today in conjunction with Manufacturing Day, a nationwide effort by the industry to celebrate modern manufacturing in the U.S. and inspire the next generation of manufacturers.

Eysink said the state’s goal is to add 40,000 total jobs a year in Louisiana. He said the pieces are in place to make it achievable.

“But we cannot do that if cannot engage with employers to find out what your real issues are,” he said.

Raymond Peters, vice president of human resources and marketing for Alexandria-based RoyOMartin, was among the handful of manufacturers who attended today’s forum. He said there’s never a shortage of applicants for job openings, but there’s always a shortage of skilled workers who are able to fill the openings.

Two years ago, RoyOMartin reached out to the state and developed an apprenticeship program in partnership with the Central Louisiana Technical Community College. All told, Peters says, the company invested about $500,000 into the program. But it has already produced 19 skilled workers, he said, and that number is growing.

“We took it upon ourselves to try to address the problem … and we pretty much have met most of our need through the apprenticeship program,” Peters said, adding the company has likely already recouped all of its costs to establish the program through employee retention.

—Steve Sanoski

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