White: For the economy to progress, north Louisiana needs workers

To stimulate economic development in Northwest Louisiana, we need more residents with documentable workforce skills.  That means a lot more people with education and training beyond a high school diploma.  According to the Board of Regents Louisiana Prospers Master Plan, only 44.2% of Louisiana’s working age population has a degree or certificate beyond high school, below the national average of 47.6%.  This matters because according to projections by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 65% of jobs nationally and 56% of jobs in Louisiana require education beyond a high school diploma.

Until the last five to seven years, there was not a lot of emphasis in Louisiana placed on educating residents about training options after high school beyond a bachelor’s degree. But times have changed in that regard due to several trends, some specific to Louisiana and some national. 

One influencing factor was a significant number of large industrial projects announced throughout the state around 2010-2014, projects that require large numbers of workers with a variety of industrial skills and Louisiana simply did not have the supply of skilled workers to meet the projected demand. To add to this trend, jobs in industrial settings (e.g. manufacturing, energy) require more technical skill than in the past as automation replaces repetitive and lower skilled job functions. Industrial jobs today frequently require an understanding of how to program, operate and maintain the machines doing what was historically the manual labor. These jobs may not all require bachelor’s degrees to demonstrate a candidate has the needed skills, often they can be filled by workers earning associate’s degree or technical certificates.

Another influencing factor is the increase in demand for healthcare workers, both in total number and in technical specialization. This is due to advances in healthcare resulting in longer life expectancy as well as more specialized methods of providing care, and a very large baby boomer generation hitting the stage of life where healthcare needs are increasing. Within healthcare training, there is a wide variety of pathways a job seeker can follow to start a career in healthcare, some requiring short turnaround time to start working, and most allow for career progression with experience and follow-on training.

And yet another trend has been the rapid evolution of information technology tools and the resulting impact on the new skills required by workers in all industries to know how to use, deploy and maintain these tools and processes that evolve at a rapid pace and require life long learning for IT professionals. Technical certificates to demonstrate proficiency are required for IT jobs and provide a way to move up the career ladder in the field.

But there is good news.  Because of increased emphasis on technical education beyond high school the last several years, there has been an uptick in completions at Northwest Louisiana technical colleges, community colleges and universities after many years of mostly flat results (see chart below). And there are new programs recently launched by the Louisiana college systems to make it easier than ever for Louisiana residents to improve their education and skill attainment.

Compete LA is an initiative of the University of Louisiana System to encourage adults who didn’t complete their degree to return to school at a flat-rate price of $275 a credit hour for returning adults, which is almost a 45% decrease in the price of tuition at UL institutions. The goal is to boost the percentage of Louisianans with a college degree to 60% by 2030.

Reboot Your Career is a program announced recently by the Louisiana Community and Technical System to support workers who may be unemployed due to COVID-19 and retrain them for available jobs on high-wage career pathways at reduced tuition, no application fees and in short-term training. LCTCS proposes to train no less than 5,000 individuals in the 2021 fiscal year in short-term, high demand programs. Training programs will largely be less then 12 weeks in length and for each region of the state eligible programs will focus on those skill sets most in demand in their respective regions, such as industrial technology, healthcare, transportation and logistics, manufacturing and information technology.

All of us in this community need to share this message with those in our circles that need to hear it. Though we are making progress, we have too many members of our community who are not actively participating in our economy or not at their full potential, and that hurts all of us and denies us achieving our economic development potential. Changing a career is scary but learning a new skill can be fun. Lifelong learning of new skills is how to make yourself more resilient to the changes and challenges of the future.  

For more information on programs noted above:

www.CompeteLA.org

www.lctcs.edu/reboot

Angie White is a certified economic developer and Interim President of the North Louisiana Economic Partnership, www.nlep.org.