Off the Charts

Off the Charts - January 2009

Help Wanted

The workforce issues facing Lafayette businesses are a cause for concern, while at the same time reflecting a successful economy. But we’d rather have this issue to deal with than the alternative — not enough gainful employment.

Recent news of the growing national unemployment rate is troubling, though locally you may hear something different. Acadiana businesses are looking for employees, and many are having trouble finding them. LEDA meets with hundreds of businesses throughout the year, and the No. 1 concern we hear from them repeatedly is workforce — whether it’s finding the number of workers needed, identifying workers with the necessary skill-sets, or keeping positions filled once someone is hired.

In recent months, I’ve written and spoken about the potential impact of a national recession on Acadiana’s economy. Another, possibly bigger, threat to our economy is the workforce issue faced by many area businesses. How effectively employers, educators and the public workforce system address the issue will ultimately determine how this shortage will impact the region. Unless a solution can be found, it has the potential to adversely affect individual businesses, which ultimately impacts the economy as a whole. As a first step in answering the workforce needs of Louisiana’s businesses, the state reorganized the Department of Labor, now called the Louisiana Workforce Commission, using the Texas Workforce Commission as a model. As a community we also need to address the disconnect between industry, education, and the labor pool to make sure individuals in the community have the opportunity to receive sufficient training in order to acquire better jobs and careers, in turn allowing employers to run efficiently and profitably.

With unemployment rates hovering near the 3 percent mark since 2006, businesses are having to reevaluate their hiring efforts. Gone are the days of running a classified ad on Sunday and waiting for the resumes to come in. Employers understand that they need to offer something special to potential employees, whether it’s higher wages, better hours or more lucrative benefits than a competitor. Employers may need to recruit prospective employees with comparable skill-sets and retrain them for their openings. Or, they may have to hire individuals below the basic requirements and take on the task of training them. With so many businesses competing for employees, it’s a job seeker’s market.

In today’s fast-paced business environment, workforce training and education are key to successful economic development. We need to make sure the workforce is getting the right kind of education to fill job vacancies. According to the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s Job Vacancy Survey (see related chart), in the spring of 2007 there were 612 job vacancies in the Acadiana region that required a bachelor’s degree or higher; however, UL Lafayette had 1,312 graduates. There were 3,211 job vacancies that required vocational training or a 2-year college degree, yet only 539 people completed a community or technical college program that spring. This isn’t a one-time occurrence; it is a trend we’ve seen for some time. What can be done to close the disconnect between educational attainment and educational requirements?

Businesses and educators, at the K-12 and post-secondary levels, must work together to develop curricula that address the occupational needs of business. The Schools of Choice program is a step in that direction. The high school academies are helping to focus students on career paths to meet the needs of local business, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System Tech Prep program also targets high school students, exposing them to skilled-trades training. These programs, plus dual secondary/post secondary enrollment and internship/apprentice programs are important pieces of the puzzle. Young adults need to be accurately informed of their educational and employment opportunities before they graduate high school. Providing them with the right tools will allow them to choose the correct educational path to prepare for their desired career.

Through public-private partnerships, UL Lafayette students are gaining real world experience in a variety of fields before leaving the classroom. This experience makes the students even more desirable to employers. We need to take advantage of that training and keep that talent in the local workforce. Colleges with successful graduate placement programs should share best practices with other colleges so there is a seamless placement program at the university. Again, it’s a matter of closing the disconnect to best meet the needs of the company and the student.

LEDA works directly with existing businesses, educators, the public workforce system, and state and regional partners to address workforce issues. We actively promote workforce training funding initiatives such as the Incumbent Worker Training Program and the Small Business Employee Training Program. These programs can help businesses obtain the skilled workforce necessary for their operation and growth. In August, LEDA hosted the 13th annual LEDA Job Fair, the largest ever with 96 employers and training providers and 1,300 job seekers. Over the years, hundreds of Acadiana’s top employers have successfully recruited job candidates at the event. Finally, LEDA focuses its retention and attraction efforts on industries that look at untapped labor markets and provide “quality jobs” that will attract and retain local and outside talent.

The workforce issues facing Lafayette businesses are a cause for concern, while at the same time reflecting a successful economy. We’d rather have this issue to deal with than the alternative — not enough gainful employment for our workers. As Lafayette’s business base evolves, new employment opportunities will present themselves to the local workforce while at the same time attracting a new, skilled workforce to Acadiana. This benefits everyone, as a quality workforce influences economic development by attracting new businesses and industries to the state.

Gregg Gothreaux is president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.