WAGUESPACK: All Hands On Deck

Will it take “a thousand points of light” or “a village” to describe how Louisiana must prepare for our booming workforce need? The answer likely depends on your political persuasion.

In former Vice President George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign for president, he often spoke about the “thousand points of light” that America needed to maximize its potential. Rather than focusing on bloated government programs, Bush used this term to characterize the countless volunteer groups and organizations the country could better utilize in order to address issues such as poverty and income disparity.

In 1996, former First Lady Hillary Clinton released a book entitled “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” In her book, she advocates for a larger scale societal approach to raising a child. At the time, many conservatives argued Clinton’s focus on the impact individuals and groups outside the family have on children diminished the role of the family, placing  too much emphasis on an expensive, government driven approach to child development.

Whether you leaned to the left, the right or somewhere in the middle, it likely determined how you viewed these two efforts at the time. Regardless of your current political persuasion, it’s worth taking note of the intense effort it will take Louisiana to meet our workforce demand over the next several years. No matter how you label this approach, it will definitely require “all hands on deck.”

We all know the challenge at hand. Louisiana has between $60 billion and $90 billion in announced new projects that will demand more than 250,000 trained, skilled workers. More specifically, an LSU study tells us that by 2018 we will need 69,000 STEM workers that are proficient in math, science and critical thinking. This need will demand that we develop a focused approach to improve our technical training, recruitment and job placement skills. Additionally, as our economy continues to diversify with non-traditional and emerging industries, this challenge will become even more critical and complex.

This week, LABI is focusing discussions on two of the many different elements of this plan to meet our workforce needs:  higher education and ex-offender training and re-entry programs. While neither on its own will solve the workforce challenge we face, both are crucial elements of the comprehensive plan we must implement.

First, LABI is co-hosting, along with the Committee of 100 and the Louisiana Industrial Development Executives Association, a panel of business people and educators to discuss the newly created WISE Fund that was statutorily created this past legislative session. This new fund will, for the first time in our state’s history, incentivize our higher education institutions to work with industry to focus on programs that meet workforce demand.

This WISE Fund concept, while simple in description, has for too long remained absent in Louisiana’s approach to funding higher education. Instead of simply continuing the traditional approach of just funding our colleges and universities for admitting students, we are now also incentivizing schools to do so in courses that will train young adults for Louisiana jobs. Getting the incentives right is crucial for the program’s success.

We cannot ask higher education to play a role in the workforce solution and then fund our schools in a way that incentivizes them to put students on cheaper and more generic courses. In the past, that is what we essentially have done. For the first time, we are trying to align the incentives so that we can better utilize existing resources to help our kids get the education they need to have a successful career.

Keeping more of our graduates at home has always been a primary goal of Louisiana parents, communities and employers. For years, we have talked about the brain drain of our young adults choosing to leave for jobs in other states rather than staying here at home to raise their families. The WISE Fund has the potential to serve as a critical tool to help address this challenge by preparing our students to fill many of these new Louisiana jobs, rather than merely relying on workers from other states to fill the gap.

Second, LABI is holding a Workforce Solutions panel that will focus on the benefits to Louisiana employers who hire ex-offenders and highlight partnerships across industry, law enforcement, and governmental agencies to develop education and nationally certified training programs. Additionally, guests will also hear from former offenders who received training while incarcerated in Louisiana and now work in the private sector, along with their employers.

According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDOC), some 15,000 offenders are released from Louisiana’s prison system every year. Research shows unemployed ex-offenders are three times more likely to commit another criminal offense than those who have a job. Ex-offenders without employment are also much more likely to be revoked from probation or parole for technical violations, especially since failure to hold a job is considered a technical violation.

Louisiana’s recidivism rate is higher than the national average. The LDOC has initiated programs designed to reintegrate ex-offenders into the workforce, but the success of these programs largely depends on employers’ willingness to hire them. While it is clear that from a criminal justice and economic perspective the employment of ex-offenders is encouraged, our civil liability system has traditionally worked at cross-purposes with this goal.

LABI-supported legislation passed this recent legislative session to help give non-violent ex-offenders a second chance, promote workforce productivity, lower crime and reduce incarceration costs by limiting liability for employers that hire qualified ex-offenders. This sensible measure will remove impediments to the hiring of ex-offenders and hopefully help improve the communities in which they live.

It will definitely take an “all hands on deck” approach to solve our workforce challenge. Improving coordination between industry and higher education to focus on regional workforce needs and maximizing the ability of ex-offenders to re-enter the workforce with appropriate training are two pieces of the puzzle. While very important pieces, we must realize that these efforts need to work seamlessly with many other critical pieces to make our workforce development puzzle complete.

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