By: Tim McIlveene, CenturyLink, Economic Development
(Monroe-West Monroe, LA) Communities across the country are grappling with workforce issues: retiring baby boomers leaving the workplace and a skills gap which leaves employers wondering how to fill job openings. Communities that proactively tackle these important workforce issues will come out ahead in economic development. This was the goal of the recent Ouachita Business Alliance (OBA) Northeast Louisiana Workforce Development Summit. The event brought leaders from education, government and industry together to discuss challenges, opportunities and ways to collaborate to ensure that Northeast Louisiana high school graduates are ready either to join the workforce or to continue their education and training.
Some of the most effective ways to fight poverty and boost economic development are job creation, workforce development and education. While many jobs and opportunities exist, the skills gap between an applicant’s skill sets and the job requirements prevents a potential worker from getting hired. These gaps include soft and hard skills, such as work ethic, communication skills, problem-solving ability, technical know-how and math and computer skills.
The Northeast Louisiana Workforce Summit featured multiple panel discussions, where educators and industry leaders discussed programs to address this skills gap. One such program is the State of Louisiana’s Jump Start program, which requires students to pick a career or educational pathway. If a student chooses a career pathway, he/she graduates high school with a recognized industry credential. These credentials span a wide range of careers, including hands-on pathways like welding and manufacturing, and office-based pathways such as Information Technology (IT) certifications.
Workforce development is a collaborative effort, requiring employer input and participation in educational and workforce training programs. That’s why area businesses are partnering with schools to bring real world expertise to the classroom. For example, in Monroe City Schools, James Machine Works sends experienced welders to teach students the welding skills they need for this much in-demand profession. CenturyLink is sponsoring STEM Academies in all three Monroe City high schools where students gain the knowledge to enter the high-growth and high-reward IT job market. These types of partnerships are not only good for students, but also for businesses. The idea is to build a homegrown pipeline of talent that has the skills necessary to join the workforce and quickly make meaningful contributions.
Other panels discussed the challenges and the opportunities in today’s dynamic labor market and new models for community involvement in K-12 education. Panelists and moderators included Paul Helton, Louisiana Economic Development; Dean Ron Berry, University of Louisiana at Monroe; Sekar Swaminathan, CenturyLink; Jay Mulhern, Express Employment Professionals; Jeff Hargrove and Brett Eager, Graphic Packaging; Jonathan Phillips, University Health; Tania Hilburn, JPMorgan Chase; Don Schillinger, Louisiana Tech University; Matt Dickerson, Monroe City Schools; Supt. Richie Strong, West Carroll Parish Schools; Supt. David Claxton, Jackson Parish Schools; Angela Jenkins, Ouachita Parish Schools; and Angie White, North Louisiana Economic Partnership. The lunch program also featured keynote speaker, Phillip May, President & CEO of Entergy Louisiana, who discussed the need for more diversity and inclusion in today’s workplace.
Northeast Louisiana is primed for continued economic growth as our community trains the workforce of the future. Business and community leaders must work with educators to ensure they have what they need to produce the best possible outcomes for their students: graduates who have the skills to either enter the workforce or continue their education.