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Business leaders head to Lake Charles for Stepping Up! conference

Last Modified: Saturday, October 26, 2013 6:44 PM

By Frank DiCesare / American Press

Business leaders from across Louisiana will meet in Lake Charles this week to discuss the region’s workforce development challenges, as local plants expand their facilities in the next five years.

Stepping Up!, a one-day conference this Wednesday at the L’Auberge Conference Center, will welcome about 500 business and state officials for a discussion on how Southwest Louisiana will fill the thousands of industry-related jobs coming to the area this decade. Attendees are expected to focus on how to inspire today’s teenagers and young adults to enter a career in skilled labor.

“For the parents who think if their kids don’t go to a four-year college they’re not successful, we need to change that mind set,” said Nancy Tower, Sasol’s North American operations training and communications manager. “I know a lot of successful welders, pipefitters and mechanics.”

Tower will be one of four participants in a roundtable discussion that will focus on workforce issues. She will be joined by Roland Toups, CEO of Turner Industries; Craig Spohn, president of Cyber Innovation Center; and Mike Mitternight, president of Factory Service Agency.

Tower said businesses need to start thinking more holistically in their approach to workforce development. She added that while there is a desire among companies to hire local skilled labor out of school, experienced workers from outside the area will also be needed.

“The problem is that when students finish training, they don’t have experience,” Tower said. “So we have an experience gap. But we have a number of people in the area who have experience. We just have to keep them in our area.”

Tower said Southwest Louisiana needs to begin populating its construction classes. She added, however, that expectations among graduating students must be managed.

“We need those people to have the understanding that there first move will be into a beginning, entry-level position,” she said. “You are not a journeyman when you graduate from school when you get your craft or certification.”

Jeff Lynn, executive director of workforce development programs at Louisiana Economic Development, said his office has identified a need of more than 83,000 people to enter construction classes in the next few years.

He said the state is trying to reach students and their parents and teachers today to let them know that construction jobs pose a great opportunity for young adults in Louisiana. He said the state has taken the National Center for Construction Education and Research curriculum and adopted it in all two-year schools and in more than 70 high schools.

“Most people think that construction jobs are short-term,” he said. “A lot of them are, but some roll over onto other projects. But with this curriculum, we can train employees to be very safe and effective and efficient in the construction industry. They can then carry that same training over into other skills and jobs that are growing across the state.”

Lynn will be part of roundtable discussion on workforce forecasts and challenges, which will include Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission; Chas Roemer, president of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Barry Erwin, president and CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said he hopes Stepping Up! will “illuminate some of the issues and challenges” business leaders will be facing with respect to workforce development in the years ahead. He said there will be many opportunities for good-paying jobs in Southwest Louisiana, especially for young people who pursue a post-secondary education.

“Companies pay for quality people, and they pay top dollar,” he said. “We’ve been able to produce those people to a large degree in Louisiana in the past, and I don’t see why we can’t continue to do that, especially if we reach into our schools.”

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Stepping Up! will run 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Registration is $65 and includes breakfast, lunch and refreshments. To register call Lynette Clark at 433-3632.

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