Business of Politics

The Unseen Workforce

by Jeremy Alford

The state is prepared to spend millions on creating a new labor force that incorporates workers who have been left out — a mission that’ll take more than money and legislation to accomplish.
Some 750,000 adults in Louisiana are outside of the traditional workforce, meaning they’re jobless but employable — at least on some level. It’s a difficult demographic to nail down, but housewives, recently released prisoners, high school dropouts, disabled citizens and the illiterate are among the masses. Many others are just between jobs. Then there are also those who simply don’t want to work or don’t have the skills to land the jobs that are available to them — and those are the people targeted in the workforce development package being pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

As usual, Jindal’s top legislative officers are leading the charge. Senate President Joel Chaisson, a Destrehan Democrat, is sponsoring Senate Bill 612, which reorganizes the Department of Labor and renames it the Louisiana Workforce Commission. In many ways, its 84 pages of complex legalese represent the administrative side of the plan. GOP House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown is authoring the training component with House Bill 1018, which establishes the Workforce Education Fund.

Jindal also has another $18 million or so committed in the state budget to get his training and education programs moving as soon as possible; the state presently has more than 100,000 job vacancies that require skilled and trained labor. The entire concept is built upon a series of alliances, from community-level groups to business and industry to community and technical colleges.

It embodies a reactive to proactive shift in the way the soon-to-be-renamed Labor Department recruits workers. “There are a lot of moving parts and pieces with this,” says Deputy Labor Secretary Tia Edwards. “But the mission is simple. The department has long had an emphasis on taking on workers who come to us. Now we’re going to where these workers are, in their communities, and we want to move them away from simple jobs and into career opportunities.”

As in the past, the state’s efforts begin on the regional level. Jindal’s package calls for the creation of Workforce Investment Boards that would plan training programs based on each region’s needs. For instance, Baton Rouge’s proposed board would focus on in-demand, high-growth areas, such as construction, petrochemical and health care, possibly even state government, Edwards says. Each WIB would also institute “business/career solution centers” for companies needing employees. Digging deeper, the process truly begins on the community level.

Career Builders of Louisiana, a Baton Rouge nonprofit that is branching out into the Acadiana area, is among the state’s community partners. Executive Director Terry Simmons says his organization is utilizing everything from church leaders, local nonprofits and guerilla marketing to reach out to this unseen workforce. It’s a smart and decisive strategy, he says, that former governors and department heads ignored.

“These are ways to communicate directly with this population, and they are very approachable entities, more so than a state agency,” Simmons says. “They’ll turn to their church before they turn to a bureaucracy.”

Business and industry is facing a learning curve on this front as well, Simmons adds. He recalls a recent initiative with a Louisiana petrochemical plant where its upper brass expressed a desire for low-level workers that were needed immediately. In response, Career Builders printed up hundreds of corrugated signs publicizing the jobs and salaries in bold text.

The plant’s reaction was one of panic. “The executives there turned to us, clearly worried, and asked, ‘Won’t we look desperate?’ They just didn’t get it,” Simmons says. “I had to explain that they’re not communicating with other plants. The truth is they were desperate, and they aren’t used to being that way. They’ve never had to communicate with the workforce out there that is available.”

Under Jindal’s master plan, once the WIBs and community-level groups bring in new workers, the training comes into play. Some of it will be offered by nonprofits like Career Builders, but it’s Louisiana’s community and technical colleges that have chiefly been charged with training this new labor force, especially since most high-demand jobs today require a two-year or technical degree. A diploma, however, isn’t always the objective; sometimes only training will be required.

Of the money Jindal has committed in this year’s proposed budget for his workforce development initiatives, about $10 million is dedicated to help the state’s community and technical colleges ramp up their efforts. This part of the plan also dovetails into the backside of the process, which is where business and industry enter the picture. For instance, groups like the Louisiana Hospital Association, which has a need for 11,000 workers, will be reaching out to the colleges to brief them on what is needed.

KarenSue Zoeller, LHA’s vice president of workforce development, says business and industry is more motivated than ever to get involved, primarily due to Jindal’s infusion of real money in this year’s budget to get his initiatives moving quickly. “The coordination and collaborations happening between various state agencies and business and industry and the community really are unprecedented,” she says. “All the stars are aligned. This is a really exciting time for workforce development.”

There are major challenges, like reaching the segment of the unemployed population that simply doesn’t want to work. Edwards says these are the folks that are “truly disenfranchised,” the ones who see no other alternative ways of life. They are among the reasons Jindal has dedicated another $4.5 million for a dual enrollment program that will introduce high school students to Louisiana’s technical and community colleges. Not only will students be able to earn credits while in high school, but it will also cut down the time they spend in the proverbial pipeline.

Literacy rates are another major concern. According to state studies, more than a quarter of all Louisiana residents demonstrate skills in the lowest level of prose, document and quantitative proficiencies. This portion of the targeted population cannot be thrown directly into training, which is why Simmons says some of the training programs will need to include a remediation component.

There are also worries about how people in the program can pay for their education and earn a living. Edwards says the state will be working to secure Pell Grants and other financial aid, and business and industry is considering scholarships and funding to help out. “There’s that much of a need right now,” Edwards says.

She also notes that Jindal took caution to mount a holistic approach that engages all stakeholders. Partnerships are at the core of Jindal’s mission, and after years of trying the same thing in different ways, the need for a collaborative effort has never been more evident. “Everyone has a role to play,” she says, “and it will all come together in the end.”