Education, training are keys to state’s future, Landrieu says
SCHRIEVER, La. — Louisiana is beginning to make the right moves in educating and training its workforce with technical and community colleges, even if it is 10 years late, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, said during her stop here Tuesday in a series of workshops she has held on workforce development.
“You can’t build a strong state on minimum wage employees. … We have a choice. We can organize in a way that our kids can go into employment that will put them in a strong middle class,” Landrieu said. “Or, we can bring workers in here that do not set up roots and eventually leave.”
With a score of business leaders and a handful of educators present at Fletcher Technical Community College, Landrieu said she wants to hear what is done in the school systems and colleges as well as what business and industry employers say they need.
It is important to have the state’s playgrounds and golf courses busier than its heliports, Landrieu said. That requires providing training and opportunity for good paying jobs that lead to families staying in the state.
“We are experiencing low unemployment through much of the state but we have pockets of unemployment (and underemployment) that are disgraceful,” Landrieu said.
The state has just come out of some hard times and a recession which tends to make economies more efficient, Louisiana’s senior senator said. Now Louisiana, north and south, has an opportunity to participate in long term prosperity.
“I want to see this economic boon be sustainable and not just a blip on the screen,” Landrieu said. “We have to invest smartly. This is an opportune time for the leadership in the state and the private sector to come together and become partners in workforce development.”
Landrieu said besides the economic boon in south Louisiana, the I-20 corridor in north Louisiana is experiencing a vibrant economy largely based on recent oil and gas exploration and production. Both north and south Louisiana have economies requiring skilled workers who do not necessarily have to attend four-year colleges.
“You can have a good career with the proper training without going to a four-year college. Not everyone will go to college,” Landrieu said. The education system needs to get to the point where it prepares students for something besides the four-year college track.
Landrieu said one of the major problems facing technical colleges, especially with recent cuts in education, is the ability to hire good instructors with experience in their fields. Why would someone leave a $100,000 job in the private sector to make $50,000 teaching, she asked.
She discussed two possible measures to remedy the dilemma; finding creative ways for industry to help, or find a way to retrain teachers retiring from public education to teach the courses. The latter solution would need to address rules governing retirement of public schools.
State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said the bayou region is where there is the greatest need for a workforce that is trained by the type of programs offered at technical colleges. He said everyone is tired of the cuts to education.
“Private/public partnerships are an excellent tool to address many of these issues,” Allain said. “Perhaps a way can be found for stipends from industry to pay for instructors.”
Landrieu said the conversation should not be isolated to recent graduates of high schools.
“Don’t forget about the people 24 to 50 who may have missed their chance. They should be given a second chance,” Landrieu said.
The state has a lot of individuals and families that Landrieu said have been shut out of jobs that pay $50,000 a year. The jobs are there for many of these hard-working individuals if they have the training, she said.
Eddie Filce Jr., personnel director of SONOCO, a Houma-based offshore catering company, said, “We can get skilled workers or we can train workers. But the problem we have is getting workers that will show up on time and that have the skills to keep a job.”
School officials from Terrebonne, Lafourche and Assumption parishes in attendance said while they attempt to address some of these issues with career counseling and job coaches, they are limited in what they can do.
Aubrey Orgeron, representing Lafourche Parish schools, pointed out that schools are forced to devote their time and resources on areas tested by the state which become part of the school’s performance score.
“We strive for that carrot (of a high rating), but some things are not part of that carrot,” Orgeron said. That includes addressing and correcting societal problems and habits learned in families.
Before the workshop began, college chancellor F. Travis Lavigne Jr. gave Landrieu a tour of the college. He pointed out many of the college’s buildings, programs and scholarships have been made possible because of grants from BP, including the $8 million offshore oil and gas training center, which is being funded in part through a $4 million donation BP made to the Fletcher Foundation.
Landrieu asked how much of the design and work was done by local contractors and expressed her admiration of the campus and its programs.
Lavigne said he appreciated Landrieu’s support of the campus as well as her visit Tuesday to discuss workforce issues.