Workforce development is picking up speed

By STEPHEN WAGUESPACK Special from LABI

It is time to focus on quality instead of quantity.
Too often, government tries to be all things to all people. As a result, money is spent in all directions with overlapping goals encouraging conflicting behavior from a confused population. Taxpayers are usually left footing the bill and getting very little in return. The lack of focus that comes with an expensive and out of touch price tag is the hallmark of what frustrates people with how their government functions.
However, this week, we saw some signs of much-needed focus that zeroed in on the most pressing issue we face as a state, the need for a qualified workforce. Much has been said about the workforce issue in recent months, and LABI has been advocating loudly for a collaborative approach.
There is no one silver bullet and government cannot be expected to be the sole solution for preparing our kids for the jobs of tomorrow. We all have to do our part, industry and government working together. Nevertheless, it all starts with education and this week our educators stated their intention to join the fight.
Louisiana’s Department of Education announced plans for a new program called “Jump Start” that aims to improve the caliber of career courses in our schools. It hopes to do so by working closely with local schools and businesses to train our kids for the high-demand jobs available in Louisiana. Good jobs with good wages are there for the taking; and the department is trying to align what we teach in high school to what the local and global industries need to hire. Sounds simple, but it has been all too elusive thus far.
This focus on ending the stigma of career education and elevating the effectiveness of the courses we offer has the potential to help kids learn the skills they need for a long and productive career, while also helping them get the credentials and certifications necessary to enter the workforce “job ready.” I strongly urge employers to learn more about it, to ask some tough questions, to collaborate with your local schools, and start explaining to these students exactly what skills you are looking for. Our kids will rise to the challenge if we show them the jobs and opportunities waiting for them in their local community.
Additionally, higher education leaders announced this week they are focusing on workforce development as well. Leaders from all of the higher education systems, the governor, and the legislative leadership announced support for a new workforce incentive fund for community colleges and four-year universities that partner with business and focus on educational programs that meet workforce needs. The fund will incentivize schools to educate kids in subjects that matter, and that will help graduates fill the growing number of high-wage, high-demand jobs in our state. It is great to see our universities prioritizing the needs of the student in such a direct way.
Too often in education, all we talk about is money. Are we spending enough or cutting enough? Is the budget too fat or too slim? The reality is, our educational debates over the years focused solely on money, have missed the point. It doesn’t matter what you spend if all you do is spend it on the wrong things. For the first time, it appears we are finally starting to talk about how best to spend money on training our kids to be successful in the workforce. It is the quality of the outcomes, which we are finally focusing on, rather than just harping exclusively on the quantity of dollars. Let’s hope this trend is contagious.
During this session, we will debate the appropriate balance of spending and cutting. That healthy debate must occur. Although just as important, we finally seem to be focusing our education discussions on the student’s future earning potential ahead of the current earning potential of the adults in the system. That part of the debate is long overdue, but hopefully, it is here to stay.
Stephen Waguespack is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

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