Officials express need for more skilled workers in La.

A mix of corporate, government and education officials agreed Wednesday that employment opportunities are increasing rapidly in Louisiana at a time when public school students still need more science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

“We need math and science skills to fill our refinery,” said Mark Northcutt, manager of ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery, to hundreds of people attending the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Northcutt emphasized ExxonMobil has poured $900 million into improvements at the refinery over the past five years.

But 20 percent of refinery employees have retired, Northcutt added, and some young applicants for those jobs are rejected “because they can’t pass those aptitude tests.”

Northcutt told the audience at the Crowne Plaza in Baton Rouge that many corporate leaders in the U.S. are concerned that the nation’s high school students rank 25th in the world for math skills and 17th for their knowledge of science. Yet, many opportunities exist for workers with solid knowledge in STEM disciplines.

“We have to get our students better educated to take advantage of these opportunities,” Northcutt said of Louisiana’s rapidly expanding industrial sites.

John White, superintendent of the Louisiana Department of Education, said state residents must confront the fact that 80 percent of high school students are in a system designed to crank out graduates headed to four-year colleges.

Only 20 percent of Louisiana’s high school graduates go on to earn a four-year degree, White noted. Another 8 percent obtain two-year degrees from community colleges.

White asked what happens to the other 72 percent.

“We do need to revive an alternate path to the middle class,” White said.

Whatever path a student chooses, White said, parents and educators should not lower expected standards in those STEM classes.

And achievement tests must look at students’ ability to apply their education to real-world problems — not just blacken bubbles on multiple-choice tests, the superintendent said.

“They have to think. They have to communicate. They have to reason. They have to employ logic,” White said.

Sonia Perez, president of AT&T Louisiana in New Orleans, said STEM courses are important because “We’re surrounded by technology. Everything we do is connected to technology.”

Perez said AT&T, which has more than 100 million customers around the globe, has committed more than $300 million to programs that are designed to keep children in high school until they graduate.

“We need these (STEM) skill sets going forward,” said John F. Jones, vice president for public policy and federal legislative affairs for Monroe-based CenturyLink, a multinational communications firm that ranked 150 on last year’s Fortune 500.

The communications industry is expanding rapidly, Jones said, and 800 new jobs soon will be needed at CenturyLink in Monroe “to accommodate what’s coming.”

But it’s difficult to find qualified applicants for those jobs in the local market, and tough to attract people from other areas once they hear stories of poor school performance, Jones added.

It is important that school administrators and company leaders move “in a common direction,” Jones said.

“I’m optimistic,” said Richard Koubek, dean of the LSU College of Engineering.

For the first time, Koubek said, the number of LSU’s engineering graduates is leading the numbers for all other fields at the university. And LSU has emerged as the nation’s fastest-growing engineering school.

“We’re players,” Koubek said. “We have a world-class curriculum.”

Koubek added that experts from Singapore, Taiwan and India helped LSU design its current STEM program. He said that has increased the demand for LSU engineers internationally as well as across the state and nation.

Starting salaries for LSU engineers are now higher than the national average, Koubek added.

Michael Hayes, public affairs manager for Sasol, a petrochemical company, said the firm is working on development of a mentor program in Calcasieu Parish as it builds two industrial plants at a total cost of more than $20 billion.

Sasol is training those mentors, Hayes said, because corporate leaders want to build a successful community while they build a successful company. Sasol wants local people to fill some plant jobs.

“We’re trying to build a community that we all want,” Hayes said.

“We’re all in this together,” said Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

Companies are interested in coming to Louisiana because state and local governments, school systems, community residents and business leaders are working toward meaningful improvements.

“The credit for this goes primarily to business and industry,” Eysink said, adding that other sectors are rapidly joining in the movement.

Journeyman plant workers now earn $30 per hour, Eysink said.

“Wages are creeping up,” he added. “This boom has started.”

Current opportunities in the state are the best residents have seen in 30 years, Eysink said.

“This is a new day for Louisiana.”