Waguespack: State needs to focus on workforce development

Recently returned from a statewide tour, the chief advocate for the business community said Monday that Louisiana employers told him too many of their workers show up late, are impolite to customers and can’t pass drug tests.

“We’re hearing that across the board,” said Stephen Waguespack, who became president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in September and has been traveling around the state talking to members of the organization that lobbies the Louisiana Legislature and state government on behalf of businessmen.

He’s not sure how government can pick up the task of teaching manners.

“We kind of lost that as something of importance as a society,” Waguespack told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

The “soft skills” of many workers are but a facet of a bigger problem of having too few workers trained to handle what will be an explosion of job opportunities in the coming years. “Go talk to an employer around the state. They can’t find workers,” he said.

One answer government and the business community could provide is more emphasis on educating workers and matching student skills to available jobs. Communication during early years of school would better show students the jobs that are available locally, the amount the students would get paid immediately upon graduation and after five years of successful work and precisely what steps are necessary to achieve those jobs.

The state is expecting $60 billion to $90 billion in investments and about 69,000 skilled workers with science and mathematics backgrounds.

“The vacancies are here,” Waguespack said. “Our economy is going to grow over the next year or two regardless of what we do.”

Waguespack said the state needs to have a holistic approach and that includes better preparing students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

LABI also supports the controversial Common Core curriculum because it demands higher standards for language, math, science and critical thinking. The technology- and science-based jobs that are coming soon will need workers with a firm foundation in those skills, he said.

Waguespack, a former member of the state education policy-setting Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he understands the need for changes that would allow some local school districts to catch up and to have greater say on curriculum, but the state otherwise needs “to hold the line” on standards.

LABI is preparing its package to push in the legislative session that starts in March, but the exact bills are not yet written, he said. The theme, however, will be preparing the state’s workers to handle what is expected to be massive investment by the state’s manufacturing sector.

The next legislative session will be about higher education, Waguespack said. Legislators already are preparing bills that would attempt to shore up funding for higher education and decide how much leeway colleges and universities get in setting tuition.

Much of the funding now is tied to the numbers of students and the speed at which they graduate. Waguespack said colleges and universities should receive incentives for offering more expensive classes that provide technical and scientific training.

“We can’t depend on formulas,” Waguespack said. “We have got to start thinking more aggressively.”