ABiz Columns

It All Adds Up

by Dr. Joseph Savoie

Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns are driving innovation in Louisiana.

The numbers are staggering and paint a picture of almost unlimited possibilities. Roughly $79 billion is being pumped into Southwest Louisiana, powered by energy and petrochemical industry investments. As a major research university, UL Lafayette is well positioned to assist in this expansion.

The historic investments into Southwest Louisiana are creating tremendous opportunities - not just for South Louisiana, but the entire state. According to fDi Intelligence, Sasol's planned facility in Lake Charles will be one of the largest foreign direct investment manufacturing projects in U.S. history. It will be the largest single manufacturing investment in Louisiana history.

Sasol, Cheniere Energy, and other petrochemical companies will build plants or expand their facilities. They are expected to bring thousands of jobs to the region, including engineers, scientists, and managers. These companies will build liquefied natural gas plants, expand their liquefied natural gas production, refine natural gas into gasoline, and harness the science of "cracking" ethane molecules to produce ethylene, for example. There is great potential for Louisiana's higher education institutions, including UL Lafayette, to fuel this development through research and by producing a skilled workforce in the areas of energy, engineering, petrochemical processing, computing and business.

Photo by Robin May

CGI is one of three technology companies that this year announced an expansion into Lafayette in large part because of UL Lafayette's strong computing programs.

Lafayette has a history as a hub of oil and gas activity, and the oil and gas industry will continue to have an important presence in Acadiana. The unprecedented growth of the petrochemical industry in Southwest Louisiana offers the chance to cultivate a symbiotic relationship across South Louisiana.

Over the past 30 years, Lafayette and surrounding parishes have concentrated on economic diversity. We have seen significant growth in areas such as health care, energy and software, for example. But most of all, Lafayette has fostered a culture of innovation that has earned it a growing reputation for attracting technology companies. Lafayette Utilities System's revolutionary fiber optic network has been a driving force.

As a major research university, UL Lafayette has contributed significantly to the region's high-tech status and job growth. In just the past year, three major technology companies - CGI, Enquero and Perficient - announced they will locate in Lafayette and create about 1,000 IT jobs. Those three companies' decision to have a presence here was influenced by the university's strong computing programs. The recently formed School of Computing and Informatics has a dedicated faculty with teaching and research expertise in all major branches of computer science, computer engineering and informatics. The Center for Business and Information Technologies has drawn national attention for its CajunCodeFest, and UL Lafayette's Center for Visual and Decision Informatics is the first and only National Science Foundation "Big-Data" Center of Excellence in Louisiana.

We are addressing workforce shortages among engineers by aggressively growing the College of Engineering student enrollment from 1,572 in 2008 to 2,696 in 2014. Its 100 percent job placement rate is a testament to the demand for petroleum engineers. We have hired several faculty members with research expertise in petrochemical technologies that are of great relevance to Southwest Louisiana, and we have initiated increased training activities in natural gas exploration and resource management. Our Energy Institute has been researching Gas to Liquid and other processing technologies, and developing GTL training modules to enhance training for our engineering students and industry professionals.

Working with industry, the university constantly assesses its course offerings to ensure that they are rigorous and relevant to today's workforce and tomorrow's innovation needs. UL Lafayette's strong industry ethos is recognized by the National Science Foundation with a ranking of No. 10 in the U.S. in industry-funded research.

We are in active conversations with McNeese State University, our regional community and technical colleges, industry-related companies and economic development partners across South Louisiana to develop collaborations in research, education, internships, co-ops, and professional development. UL Lafayette can, for example, be a valuable resource for engineering and computing technology for the entire region.

With a population of more than 840,000 the combined Lafayette/Lake Charles region is second in size to the Greater New Orleans region, creating a powerful alliance. Our strong culture of collaboration with our partners, proven ability to work with industry and global research recognition in computing and engineering will make UL Lafayette a significant partner in fully realizing the potential of Southwest Louisiana.

Dr. Joseph Savoie holds bachelor's and master's degrees from UL Lafayette. He earned a doctorate in educational leadership and administration from Columbia University's Teacher's College in New York. Savoie served as the state's commissioner of higher education for 12 years before assuming the top post at UL Lafayette in 2008.