Baton Rouge ranks first in STEM jobs report

Advocate staff photo file by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- The ExxonMobil refinery in north Baton Rouge is among industrial plants that have undergone expansions in recent years. There is at least $4.1 billion in ongoing or announced petrochemical construction projects in the metro area that will help drive job growth over the next two years, a report forecasts.
Advocate staff photo file by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- The ExxonMobil refinery in north Baton Rouge is among industrial plants that have undergone expansions in recent years. There is at least $4.1 billion in ongoing or announced petrochemical construction projects in the metro area that will help drive job growth over the next two years, a report forecasts.

A new report found that Baton Rouge ranked first out of the top 100 U.S. metro areas for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math that are available to people without a bachelor’s degree.

The report on the hidden STEM economy, released Monday by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, found that 12.6 percent of all jobs in metro Baton Rouge are available to people who don’t have a four-year college degree but substantial knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math — with many of them tied to the petrochemical industry and industrial construction or construction trades. Nationally, 10 percent of all jobs are available to people with STEM knowledge but no bachelor’s degree.

New Orleans was tied for third on the list with Fort Myers, Fla. — with each at 12.4 percent. Birmingham, Ala., was second at 12.5 percent.

“When most people think of STEM jobs, they think of working in computers, electronics or the tech sector, but it’s much broader than that,” said Jonathan Rothwell, an associate fellow with the Brookings Institute and the author of the report. “But there are some industries that are very STEM-oriented, such as utilities, energy-related firms and construction companies.”

These STEM jobs pay well. According to the Brookings report, the average annual salary for a STEM job in Baton Rouge is $59,860, compared with $34,039 for non-STEM jobs. And while a STEM job that requires a two-year degree or less has an average annual salary of $49,764 in Baton Rouge, non-STEM jobs that call for an associates’ degree or less have an average pay of $30,171.

Manufacturing jobs that pay good wages have been vanishing in recent years. Rothwell said these STEM jobs are another way that mechanically inclined young people can find a career that gives them a chance for a middle-class lifestyle.

“The number of declining workers in manufacturing is a disturbing trend with implications for income inequality,” he said. “But there is an increasing demand for skilled workers that doesn’t require a college education.”

Since about one-third of all adults graduate from college with a four-year degree or better, Rothwell said something needs to be done to avoid condemning two-thirds of the U.S. population to low-wage jobs.

“There are other alternatives to people who are not attracted to a four-year degree track if they are willing to acquire formal training,” he said.

The biggest STEM occupation in Baton Rouge is construction trades workers, which includes people who work in industrial construction.

That field is expected to boom over the next four years because of the billions in petrochemical and chemical plant expansions that are underway or in the planning stages.

Right now, there are 10,220 construction trade worker jobs in metro Baton Rouge; Brookings said none of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

“When a new plant is being put together, there are a bunch of jobs that require a fairly sophisticated understanding and knowledge of engineering and physics,” Rothwell said. “You actually talk to these people in detail what their job requires and they have an impressive amount of knowledge.”

Most of these industrial construction training jobs require about 10 to 15 weeks of training at a community or technical college before someone can start at the lowest level.

Unique to Baton Rouge, Rothwell said there are 2,050 jobs for chemical plant and system operators.

Those jobs have an average wage of $66,000 a year and most of the people who have those positions have a high school diploma.

“These positions do require on-the-job-training,” he said. “They’re not for people off the street, you need to have a demonstrated competency in the subject matter. But there is a great opportunity.”

Connie Fabré, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, an association of plants in the Capital Region, said while more and more local high schools are offering classes in welding and shop, not enough students and their parents recognize the opportunities that exist in fields such as industrial construction.

“People are still in the mode of thinking that a four-year college degree is the best avenue to prosperity, but that is not always the case,” Fabré said. “A good living can be made in skilled crafts or going to hairdresser school. There are so many different avenues to making a good living.”