Last Modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 9:52 PM
Over the next five years, Southwest Louisiana will witness the largest expansion of industry in its history, as petrochemical companies look to invest more than $46 billion in new and larger facilities.
But with expansion will come challenges, especially when it comes to workforce development.
It’s a challenge that brought more than 450 business and political leaders from across the state to the L’Auberge Conference Center on Wednesday for Stepping Up!, a one-day conference that began the discussion on how Southwest Louisiana will meet its workforce development challenges as its economy expands this decade.
“We know that we can have $21 billion of steel and concrete and the best of control systems, but it won’t be successful unless we have good people to build it, to operate it and maintain it and support it,” said Nancy Tower, Sasol’s North American operations training and communications manager. “And that is what this is about. We want to do everything that will make it successful, and that means making our community successful.”
The conference focused particularly on how to inspire and prepare young students for the skilled labor jobs that will be needed to build the new plants and expanding facilities that are planned for the area. It has been estimated that thousands of skilled labor jobs, including welders, pipefitters and millwrights will be needed to begin construction as early as 2015.
Stephen Toups, CIO of Turner Industries in Sulphur, said industry leaders need to get their message out to young people that those with skilled-labor training will be in demand in the years ahead. He added that they need to hear the success stories of those who have chosen labor as a career.
“We have to talk about the career path,” Toups said. “If you’re good with your hands and if you like working on motors, it’s an opportunity to be who you want to be.”
Craig Spohn, president of the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier City, said business leaders need to “create a demand for knowledge-based workers.” Once that is achieved, he added, the focus must then be on what businesses want to produce out of the school system to respond to the demand created.
“We’ve really got to focus on educational output,” he said. “Universities and community colleges are aligning with the employers in the regions in which they work. We should do a good job in trying to copy that model. I think to some extent we have.”
The Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance has said 25,000-30,000 workers will be needed in the Lake Charles area alone to build and staff the new and expanded plants. The Louisiana Economic Development Department has estimated that at least $60 billion in new manufacturing jobs will need to be filled across the state in the next three to five years.
Business leaders said “a grassroots effort” will be needed to encourage young children in Southwest Louisiana today to consider skilled labor for a career.
“We need to start working with kids a lot earlier and steer them in the direction of these career paths,” said Mike Mitternight, president of Factory Service Agency in Metairie. Career counselors need to make kids understand that just because you may not have a four-year degree, there’s a good chance you can make a good living as soon as you get out of school with some basic industry-specific training.”
Loren Scott, professor emeritus of economics at LSU, began the conference with an overview of the natural gas boom that is taking place across the state. He said Louisiana is faced with a “Holy cow!” labor issue, with respect to the jobs that will need to be filled.
“You’ve got all of this industry that’s coming in and it’s going to be wonderful for you and it’s way better than being in a recession,” he said. “But the other thing is that you’ve got to find people to build these plants and you have to find places to house these people.
“There are always problems associated with growth,” he added, “but it’s way better than having problems associated with nothing happening.”