You are what you eat.

I usually tell my children this, or some variation of it, when I want them to eat a vegetable or skip a soft drink. I explain to them how healthy food can make them grow strong and how too much of the wrong foods are bad for their health. The moral of the story is that you can have great genes; exercise and stay away from all the taboo vices, but if you eat bad stuff you will be sluggish, less effective and fail to meet your potential. Our state’s economy is no different and it is starving to death right now for a healthy workforce to feed Louisiana’s growth.

Our state’s genes are strong. Our economy is diversifying before our very eyes. We remain blessed with tremendous natural resources, especially in the oil and gas found on land and off our shores. New technologies in manufacturing and oil and gas development are making us more competitive for investment than ever before. We have more than $90 billion in new and expanded projects announced in Louisiana.  Loren Scott’s recent economic forecast projects that by 2015 we will employ more than 2 million people for the first time in our state’s history.

The question is, what kind of workers will we serve up to our economy? We know we will need more than 250,000 qualified workers to support the economic boom, that at least 86,000 of those need to be skilled construction craft workers, and that by 2018 we will need at least 69,000 workers to be STEM qualified. The problem is that Louisiana currently has the capacity to train only  64,000 workers. These challenges are real and represent the meat and potato needs of our state, but our system is only producing bread and water these days.

As I travel the state, workforce is the number one issue I hear across the board. I hear it from big business and small business alike. They talk about workers not having the soft skills training needed to interact with customers or show up to work on time, the relevant training necessary to succeed in today’s world economy and, sadly, even how hard it is to find folks that will pass a drug test in some instances. We can do better.

Next week, LABI is partnering with CABL and Southwest Industry Alliance to host a workforce conference in Lake Charles to tackle this very issue. We will be bringing in private sector leaders and employers, education officials, legislators, local officials, economic and business organizations, foundations and others from across the state to discuss this challenge and identify the substantive steps we must take to solve the issue. If you are worried about this problem or want to be a part of the solution, I urge you to participate.

Even before this conference takes place, I can tell you there are a couple things we know to be true. We had better stay strong on strong math and critical thinking skills in our K-12 education system to prepare our children for these jobs. We had better improve the quality and relevance of technical training from high school through post-secondary entities if we are to meet this demand. We had better drive home to our students the importance of showing up for work on time, hard work, and drug-free living. These things we know, and have known for some time, are necessary to train our children for the jobs of tomorrow. If we don’t do it, some other state will, and it will be their children that will benefit by the expectations of the New World economy.

What kind of workforce do we want to serve for supper?  What caliber of workers will our economy feast upon?  Just as any good restaurant has to meet expectations every single night to keep their customers, the jobs in the new economy will go to the state serving the best dish. For a state known around the world for its cuisine, it is way past time for us to whip up a batch of high-qualified workers and meet that customer demand before it’s too late.

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