Ways to support diversification of Acadiana’s economy addressed at summit
LAFAYETTE — More than 100 local shareholders in the region’s workforce development efforts gathered at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Thursday to determine how to best grow the foundations needed — through employee education, outreach and private/public partnerships — to support the diversification of Acadiana’s economy.
The Restart Summit was a one-day professional development seminar aimed at questioning the current focus of efforts in Louisiana Workforce Development Area 40, which encompasses St. Mary, Iberia, St. Martin, Vermilion, Lafayette, St. Landry, Acadia and Evangeline parishes.
The region has already taken steps to become more proactive in growing a labor force better suited to today’s swiftly changing economic landscape. In 2017, the Area 40 board entered into a cooperative agreement with South Louisiana Community College to provide services at its workforce development offices, the first agreement of its kind between a community college and local employment board in the state.
Natalie Harder, SLCC’s chancellor, kicked off the event, rhetorically asking what was the most important step to developing a future-ready labor force.
“It’s about education,” Harder said. “Between ’18 and ’19, Louisiana dropped from 48th to 49th in education.”
That statistic was echoed as Emma Bush, the incoming executive director of the joint effort, laid out the purpose of the summit.
“We are doing a restart here today,” Bush said. “You have all of the tools you need. We’re not just pushing pencils and forms. We are changing lives.”
UL Lafayette Vice President for Research Ramesh Kolloru pointed out that the ability to quickly grow that workforce is key to landing new industry.
“What they will look at is how quickly you can dial up a new training program,” Kolloru said. “How many graduates can you produce, and how long are they going to stay in the area? It is only after they have the answers to those questions that they are going to worry about how many square feet of office space they will need.”
Through the partnership with SLCC, the Workforce Development offices have been able to coordinate training programs to retrain displaced workers as well as identify upcoming employer needs and craft programs from scratch to fill those roles.
One story that demonstrated the strength of the partnership came from SLCC Vice Chancellor Jermaine Ford, who related the story of a homeless man from Lafayette.
“He rode his bike to New Iberia to take part in the scaffolding program there,” Ford said. “He finished the program and carpooled to work, earning his way. Today, he’s not homeless. He has a job.
“I heard last week he bought an Escalade,” Ford finished, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
The seminar also brought several of the region’s largest employers, economic development organizations and social service groups to the table. Representatives from Stuller Settings, CGI, Chik-fil-A, One Acadiana, United Way, Faith House, and others were on hand for breakout discussions and brainstorming sessions. Although hard skills were a core concern, the soft skills employees need were also cited as a need.
“I interview every person who comes through our office,” said Jim Bernard, a vice president at Stuller Settings. “I get applications where people can’t spell. They say things in their initial interview that quickly eliminate them from consideration. We hire from the outside area regularly, for IT positions, because there is not enough talent in our area.”
William Labar, vice president at CGI, continued the education drumbeat.
“Having that educational pipeline is critical,” he said during a session after lunch. “There’s a huge shortfall in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). We go out into the schools in the community to encourage students to pursue those degrees, especially among minorities and women.”
At the end of the day, the goal is to be able to grow that talent locally, Bush said.
“We want to develop a program here that can be a model,” Bush said. “This will be a system we can export to other areas.”