At the end of his brief address to the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge on March 30, outspoken shipbuilding executive Donald “Boysie” Bollinger congratulated himself for not saying anything that would offend anyone. Then came the question-and-answer session, when someone asked about the state’s workforce.
“Do we get enough qualified people? The answer is, blatantly, no,” Bollinger said. “I’ve been saying it for years, and I’m going to continue saying it for years: We do a miserable job in Louisiana of producing a quality workforce.”
He went on to claim that his Lockport-based company could add 2,000 workers if he could find the right people.
“And, of course,” he said, “if you had the workers, you could get the work.”
Setting aside any possible hyperbole—Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret says he’s sure the company doesn’t have the work to add 2,000 people—Bollinger certainly didn’t sound like a man who thought the state’s workforce situation was getting any better, despite years of talk about reform.
“We’re making progress, but we’re still lagging behind,” says Louisiana Community & Technical College System President Joe May, who, along with LED and the Workforce Commission, is at the center of the state’s effort.
Prior to 1999, when LCTCS was formed, Louisiana had more than 40 technical schools, May says, each with its own CEO and accreditation. There were five community colleges, three of which are now part of LCTCS: Delgado in New Orleans, Nunez in Chalmette and Bossier Parish in Bossier City were added over the years.
The tech schools eventually were organized into seven colleges under LCTCS, for a total of 16 schools in the system. May says the new approach is more efficient: The system handles administration, while the schools focus on meeting local needs.
Louisiana has long had a higher percentage of its postsecondary students in four-year schools than in two-year schools. It’s partly a cultural issue: Tech school was considered a last-ditch option for students who couldn’t hack it academically, not a potential path to a well-paying job. There was some justification for that attitude, Moret says, since the state didn’t properly support and fund two-year schools for decades.
The state currently has about a 30-70 ratio of two-year students to four-year students, May says, based on full-time equivalent enrollments, which is closer to the ratio obtained in states Louisiana would like to emulate. Louisiana had been at a 25-75 ratio, he says, while North Carolina’s ratio is about 60-40.
“The higher your level of education, the more mobile you are as an individual,” May says.
A company can recruit engineers from other states if necessary, he says. But less-educated folks are less mobile, and a company wants to know it has a base of such workers readily available. So a state with a stable base of technicians and welders can support more companies, the theory goes, leading to more jobs for everyone, including university graduates.
At every opportunity, Moret touts Louisiana FastStart, the state’s customized worker training program for certain businesses that are expanding or moving to the state. At least one publication, Business Facilities, has called FastStart the best such program in the nation. But Moret says the systemic problem still exists.
He says the community and technical college system, such as it was, stood still from 1970 until the late 1990s; the state now is in the midst of investing about $200 million. When Georgia recruits high-tech companies, Moret says, they hold meetings at the technical schools because they like to show off what they have. Louisiana has yet to reach that point.
“There’s been a lot of forward progress over the last few years, starting before we took office,” he says. “We have so much catching up to do.”
Moret says the GRAD Act, which allows post-secondary schools to charge more tuition in exchange for agreeing to meet performance measures, gives LCTCS schools more flexibility. In the past, he says, there were programs industry wanted and students were willing to pay for that schools couldn’t afford to offer.
The state’s Rapid Response Fund, which supports new programs meant to address immediate needs, has been helpful, May says, adding that the use of part-time faculty has made his schools more flexible. He says the GRAD Act is “still a work in progress,” in terms of figuring out which metrics are most appropriate for his schools.
Preparing for the future
Employers no longer face the extreme post-Katrina workforce crunch that existed a few years ago.
“We’re not seeing any dire shortages, just because of the downturn in the economy and less project work,” says Connie Fabre, who directs the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance. “I think everybody’s able to source their labor pretty well.”
But she says companies still have to work pretty hard to recruit workers with highly specialized skills, such as boilermakers, combination welders, pipefitters, and instrument and electrical technicians. As the stock market picks up, she says, older workers who had been delaying retirement are starting to think about hanging up the hard hat, which makes efforts to backfill the workforce more urgent.
Doug Schmidt, Baton Rouge area human resources manager for ExxonMobil, says his company has been hiring wage and professional workers over the past three years, has dealt with the retirement issue, and hasn’t had a serious problem finding the right people.
Tom Yura, who manages BASF’s Geismar site, also says he’s not struggling to find quality people. But Yura is concerned that 20% to 30% of the worker population could be retiring in the next five years. After all, people who put off retirement while waiting for their 401[k]s to rebound didn’t get any younger.
Yura is pleased with the improved support for community and technical colleges, the new career-based high school diploma and the Career Academy opening in Baton Rouge in the fall.
“Are we reaping the benefits of all of this?” he says. “I think it’s still in the early stages.”
May says the biggest immediate challenge for LCTCS is finding space. He says enrollment has grown 57% since his arrival.
“It’s not because we’re taking students from four-year institutions,” he says. “We really are attracting more people into higher education.”
May thinks his student body might still need to double, however, from 80,000 to 160,000. The state didn’t invest in the right programs for 30 to 40 years, he says, and the skills gap remains significant.
“I think it’s going to take us enrolling 110,000, 115,000 students,” he says, “before we start to see the results to really ease some of the pain that employers are feeling.”