Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Stephen Waguespack. (Lance Traweek / American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, November 02, 2013 6:14 PM
Stephen Waguespack, formerly the chief of staff and executive counsel for Gov. Bobby Jindal, was recently named president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Waguespack talked with the American Press about issues that concern LABI’s membership, including workforce develop and Common Core.
Stephen Waguespack: I started at LABI five weeks ago, and in the last couples of weeks what I’ve been trying to do is get around the state to visit with current members, potential members, other stakeholders and economic development groups and try to get a feel for everything that is going on in that area, what are some challenges they face, opportunities and all that stuff.
We’re in Lake Charles these two days meeting with folks. ... That’s why we’re here. ...
LABI has a strong record. It’s a 40-plus-year organization. It’s been through a lot of battles. It’s fought for a lot of tough things that happened here in the state. Going forward we’ve got to figure how we’re going to be effective for the next 40 years. That’s what I’m kind of focused on. The first thing I decided to do was to get out around the state and listen and learn.
The number one thing I’m hearing the most out there from folks is they want to see an organization get out of Baton Rouge and come out and visit other parts of the state. It kind of reinforces what we’re doing. I like that.
From an issue perspective, workforce development is the number one thing I hear. And there’s a lot of talk out there about these big projects coming and 90 billion dollars in new projects announced and we know it’s going to take 250,000 skilled workers and we know 69,000 are going to have to be STEM-qualified (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for the permanent jobs. All the numbers and stats are there.
The thing about this area is this is kind the epicenter of the whole thing. This is where the big growth is. This is where if we’re going to fix whatever workforce challenges we have, this is going to have to be a big part of the solution. If we’re going to make sure that we keep our infrastructure up and running to accommodate all this growth, this is where it’s going to happen. So I think Southwest Louisiana is going to have those challenges and opportunities, but it’s better to have those problems — how do we deal with growth and investment and expansion? — as compared to the opposite.
I’m sure I’ll be back here fairly often because this is where it’s all happening. There’s a lot of great growth here.
And so we’re doing this conference tomorrow (Oct. 30) with Workforce (Development). The first panel is going to be the business interest in there and what are their needs and what are their challenges. What I hear a lot from folks is they are having trouble finding skilled workers that have soft skills that makes them able to be a good worker, co-worker: show up on work on time, deal with customers. I’m hearing they have having trouble finding the technical training that they need. There’s an expense at hiring a Louisiana worker. You have to re-educate and retrain some of that.
We want to try to find ways that we can streamline that and make the training that’s happening today, whether it’s in K-12 or the technical and community colleges more resembling what the need of the workforce is. So we are trying to build that bridge there. That’s a big piece.
And we need someone who can pass a drug test and come in and be a good worker like that.
So those are the soft skill things. I hear it everywhere. Big business, small business, south Louisiana, north Louisiana, workforce is the number one thing. So that kind of crystal ball where we go for those first wave of issues, I think workforce has to be a big piece of it.
And then the business community is often maybe not done as well as I think we need to do, it to explain to the general population out there, in a lot of these battles that we’ve picked, why are we picking them. What is the value to your average, everyday Louisiana citizen for some of these fights like education reform?
There’s lots of coverage in every newspaper and lots of discussion about this bill or that bill or this agency or that agency, at the end of the day I think it’s pretty simple. We know that it’s going to take 69,000 STEM workers to meet this permanent demand. That’s math, science, critical thinking. We either train our kids to succeed in that or we don’t. It’s up to us.
As so as we look at K-12, this whole Common Core discussion, to me we have to teach math and critical thinking to our kids. If not, we’re not going to be able to meet the workforce demand and either that means the jobs won’t come here or they will come and they will leave, of if they stay, they’ll have to go to other states to recruit kids to come in, and our folks won’t experience the benefits that they deserve. So we’ve got to train that in the K-12.
The other piece in some of our K-12 offerings, we offer technical programs either through the career diploma program or through course choice with partnering with the private industry or vo-tech or community college and depending on where you go in the state, the quality varies. And so I want to learn where the areas are that are delivering high-quality programs in K-12 that are actually going to train someone to weld in a way that the company down the street is going to hire them to do that. And where is it happening? And how can you replicate that in other areas?
So one thing while I’m here I want to learn a little bit better is how that is happening here. I know there is a partnership with the local (school) district and Sowela (Technical Community College) and do some of that. I hear good things about that. I want to learn how that is working and see if there is a model to replicate in other areas.
Until we kind of bring that community college training into the K-12 math and critical thinking and student prep programs and bring industry in in both levels to make sure that the programs being delivered are reflective of the jobs available in that region, to me that’s one of our tops focuses — to really put that on steroids because over the next five or six years, a lot of these big projects are getting built and there will be a lot of construction jobs that come in because of it. That’s great. We’re going to see growth there.
But if we don’t do the little things now to fix the workforce, five or six years from now when the construction jobs go to the next project somewhere else, what’s left? We’ve got to have the workforce there not only to fill those new facilities, but also if we get this strong workforce, that’s going to be the attraction for some other boardroom somewhere else that’s looking to invest their dollars. They will come to Louisiana because we have the resources, we’ve got the infrastructure. If we put on top of that we now have the educated and qualified people to work in your facility, I think we’re unstoppable.
So the workforce thing is the number one issue and Southwest Louisiana is ground zero for that whole decision.
American Press: We see industries push to train workers. The bigger question is how do we get these students to be trained through the door in the first place?
Waguespack: When you look at the high school dropouts that we always worry about, studies show second or third grade is where you lose them. If you start falling behind there they’ll drop out in high school. I think the same is true for the workforce. What will happen is if you have a kid in the seventh or eighth grade and they are starting to figure out, ‘‘Why am I taking this course? Why am I here? Is this a waste of time?’’ That’s the kind of group of kids you’ve got to try to touch and say, ‘‘If you go in and do this, here’s the job, here’s the salary, it’s there for the taking.’’
(Recently) we were at a facility outside of Baton Rouge that, it’s an ABC-run (Association Builders & Contractors) facility, that is training welding there in a way that the jobs in that area are hiring for. And so the Ascension (Parish) schools and the East Baton Rouge (Parish) schools are sending kids there in their buses for their elective courses. I went and talked to some of these kids and what they were saying was, ‘‘I know if I can get to Level 5 if I work hard for a year or a year-and-a-half. If I get to a Level 5 I know that I’m going to get a job down the road because they told me that and I’ve seen other people do it. I want that job because I want to be able to buy that house or that car and all that stuff.’’
A kid can wrap their head around that. It’s hard for a kid in the seventh or eighth or ninth grade to wrap their head around some arbitrary discussion about education and what it may lead to. If you come them and say, ‘‘Here’s a real path. Stick with us. Don’t dropout. We’re going to put you in an elective program where we’re going to bus you to this area, meet the guy here that is going to be hiring from this program. He says if you get to a Level 5 he’ll hire you.’’ That type of connecting the dots, I think, goes a lot way for those kids.
It’s quite a life. It’s feeling good about yourself.
Any organization that requires hard work, if you’re not explaining to the people that work there, what you’re trying to get to, what the goal is, what the steps are and what does it lead to. If you don’t understand that, they’re going to get tired of doing the hard work if they don’t see the bigger picture. If you’re doing yard work and you don’t see where it’s going, you are going to give up unless you understand what you are trying to do.
I think education is the same way. If you don’t make kids understand why you’re taking this course or why you have to learn this skill, why, if you have to learn math in a certain way through Common Core that will develop critical thinking. Why is that important?
It’s because that plant down the street is competing in a global economy and the jobs they have today require that skill set. If you learn the skill set and then you go take this technical course, here is the job you can get.
I think then a kid can understand why it makes sense to work in that classroom. If they don’t have that perspective on it, some kids are going to lose focus, not because they are not capable of achieving, they don’t understand what it’s all about.
There was a time where just getting education, just getting that degree was what it took to be successful in the workforce. That’s what it took. As long as you showed that you made it to that point, that was going to get you there. That’s not really where our economy is going. As you get to a globally competitive economy and the margins get tight and the competition for jobs get tight — all these big plants that are coming to this area, we weren’t only state looking to get them. It’s very competitive.
So you have to have a workforce that is trained on a particular skill, that has all the soft skills and all the wrap-around pieces as well. So it’s not even education, education. It’s here are the steps you have to take, here’s why you have to get a relevant education.
If we enroll all of our kids in programs that aren’t meeting our workforce demands, you can walk into that job fair with all the degrees that you want, if they know that as soon as they hire you, they have to retrain you and send you through an apprenticeship program and get you off drugs and do all those things, it’s going to be hard for you to compete for those jobs. It’s a big challenge.
We’ve been on the good side of that equation in Southwest Louisiana, too. We’ve sent people who used to work offshore in the Gulf, now they’re up in North Dakota. So we’ve exported some our expertise as well. We’ve benefitted from that. But that’s the nature of the global economy. You cannot take that dynamic away. Employers are going to hire the folks that can come in and compete and do the job the right way. I think it’s a good opportunity for us.
We’re so close. We’ve got good programs and we’ve got good pieces. It’s not quite connected. I think if we put some focus on to this, and not just bring in industry, but K-12 and the post-secondary groups, I think we can have a seamless transition and we can get it done. But we have to make it a focus. It’s not going to happen organically.
You touched on Common Core. That’s a big controversy these days. What is LABI’s take on Common Core?
Waguespack: We support it. There’s some issues out there like there have been some worksheets that have gone home that have had certain words or analogies that don’t really meet the community’s standards. I can tell you as a parent, I don’t like some of those things that I read either.
I think it’s critical that local educators and parents have a say in what type of curriculum is going to be delivered.
What Common Core is, it’s standards, it’s not curriculum. It’s not driving a national curriculum. There’s a lot of autonomy at the local level on how you implement those standards.
Some districts have gone out and taken these last two years and they’ve prepared a program that not just makes sense on paper, but they’ve trained their teachers to deliver it appropriately, so they are ready for this transition.
Other districts haven’t done that and now when it’s time to implement, they don’t have a curriculum, they don’t have a group of educators that’s been trained to deliver that very curriculum they’ve decided to create, so they are grabbing stuff off the Internet and poaching from other folks, and it’s hard to get quality control when you do that.
I think there’s a lot in the middle who have tried to get there but are not quite sure where to go. Do we go find what the state can do and deliver from there? Do we create locally? Do we go look at some of these national groups and use some of theirs?
The good and bad of autonomy is local leadership is going to drive a lot of this. But I think that it’s important. You want locals to be able to control curriculum. Personally, I think it’s a good thing.
And it also underscores the reality that this myth of a national curriculum, it’s indeed a myth. It’s no different than the Loch Ness monster. It doesn’t exist.
It’s a standard-based and it’s implemented differently on the local level. We’ve got to help locals make smart decisions and so I know that BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) has done some things to try to get ahead of that and I’m glad they are doing it. That’s the biggest thing.
The reason why LABI supports Common Core is because employers tell us math and critical thinking are the things they need for their workers. It’s that simple. If that’s what we need, why wouldn’t we educate kids to meet that demand? It’s simple if you break it down like that.
We’re strong on it. We’re going to try to educate folks that some of the myths out there are not reality. And if there are any issues that come up on how you deliver it and how the training goes, we want to be part of the solution to making sure that’s done well. But we should not throw out accountability and the need to teach math and critical thinking because we are worried about some myths.
There have been some complaints in the higher education community about the budget cuts that have been made. A lot of people feel like the state has gone from cutting the fat to cutting down to the bone. What’s LABI’s stance on the cuts that have been made to higher ed funding these days?
Waguespack: I would say LABI want a strong higher education system but it’s important not only for our workforce but just for your general community benefit. There’s lots of limitless opportunities and that’s why you have to have a strong higher education system.
Having said that, I still think there are some programs out there that may not be meeting a workforce demand. I do think there are ways that higher education institutions can partner more efficiently and effectively and deliver services in an area.
If you’ve got a workforce need in an area and you have overlapping programs at different institutions, there’s probably a way they can coordinate that and make it more efficient to the taxpayers. If you’ve got an area that has certain workforce needs, and instead of meeting that, it’s delivering programs that aren’t really helping any kids there meet a regional workforce need, we have to question whether that’s the right way to spend our resources. I do think there are some alignments and some efficiencies that can happen by either doing away with unnecessary programs but also doing a better job of doing some coordinated efforts.
I understand Sowela is doing a good job with that in working with McNeese and the K-12 schools. I think that’s probably a model. You hear the same thing in the Bayou Area between Fletcher (Community College) and Nicholls (State University). I’m more familiar with that example where a kid can have a student ID for one institution, go to a class at one institution during the day and at night, that very same classroom could be used by the community college and deliver either a remedial course to keep that kid enrolled or maybe a technical course so that they can go and get a job afterward. That’s using the same space. That’s efficiency, that lessens the faculty and overhead that those institutions have to pay and I think the community benefits.
I think there are still opportunities for efficiencies like that.
LABI fought Gov. Jindal this last session on the income tax-sales tax swap. If that comes up again, do you think LABI will have the same position?
Waguespack: We have a non-fiscal session next year, so I don’t anticipate it coming up next year. Any time any tax proposal comes up, we’re going to stand strong to make sure that it’s done in a way that benefits our members, yes, but also because our members are the job creators in the state. They’re the one that make the communities grow and prosper so you want those types of job creators to want to invest more of their dollars here in Louisiana. So any tax reform we are going to take a very hard line on that.
Any increase on taxes that will make it harder for our guys to invest and grow here, yes we’re going to be concerned with it.
You mentioned workforce development. What are some of the other issues that you believe will be coming up in the next legislative session?
Waguespack: I think workforce is an obvious one. As I travel the state, I’m still learning more about some of the different challenges for different parts of the state. But that is the one common denominator I hear everywhere. That’s a no-brainer.
After that, I think it’s probably a little early to figure out what the other top priorities are there. I think I need to continue to go around the state and listen on that. But there’s no doubt that workforce is going to be a big one.
We know we’re not going to have a fiscal session next year, so I don’t anticipate any taxes coming. When it comes to education, I know there have been a lot of reforms put in the system in the last couple of years. We think those reforms are working and that they need to continue to grow. And so we’re going to stand ready to oppose any backsliding of that.
We also want to make sure that it is being implemented effectively, that educators have whatever they need to be able to deliver in the classroom, that businesses and the vo-techs and community schools and the post-secondary schools are working with K-12 to make sure the programs are effective. I think those are always things that will be a focus at every session.