Panelist says more funds needed to prepare students for evolving workforce

Prepared workforce needed to meet growing industry

While an infusion of $40 million is on the table for colleges and universities to help fill workforce needs, a steady stream of funding is needed in future years to meet demands for educated and trained workers, said Willie Smith, who oversees workforce development for South Louisiana Community College.

Smith shared information about the $40 million Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, or WISE Fund, during a forum Wednesday organized by the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council. The forum featured Smith and two other panelists, Barry Erwin, president and CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana, and Laci Maniscalco, a third-grade teacher at Broadmoor Elementary and a teacher-leader on the Common Core State Standards.

The WISE Fund was approved during the legislative session that ended in June to provide incentives to align educational and training programs with workforce demands.

“There’s a great deal of demand out there,” said Smith, SLCC’s vice chancellor of economic and workforce development. “With that demand comes huge challenge and obstacles.”

One of those challenges is meeting the needs of industry and businesses, especially as $60 billion in major business developments and expansions are underway, Smith said.

As part of the competition for the WISE Fund money, colleges must secure a 20 percent match of their award in private funds.

Following the forum, Smith said SLCC has applied for $1.6 million to focus on top demand fields in Acadiana: a new program to train oil and gas production workers and operators that could start in spring 2015; a new program in software development; and expanding existing programs in welding and advanced manufacturing.

Erwin, meanwhile, noted that for the first time in six years, higher education made it through a legislative session without funding cuts.

Erwin, who described CABL as a “reform-minded organization,” said there were was a “frontal assault” during the legislative session on prior legislation that created changes in education policy.

“The good news, from our point of view, is that none of those bills passed,” Erwin said.

A major point of contention is on the Common Core State Standards, new learning standards adopted by more than 40 states that outline what students should know at each grade level in math and English language arts.

While legislation failed in the session to halt the state’s implementation of the standards and the tests tied to them, Gov. Bobby Jindal continues the fight. In recent months, Jindal has changed his position on the standards, which he had supported four years ago when they were adopted by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Implementation of the learning standards began in the past school year along with preparations to begin new standardized testing. Last week, BESE voted 6-3 to seek legal counsel in a stance against Jindal’s objections to the continued implementation of the standards and the new tests.

Opponents of the standards, including Jindal, site federal intrusion into state education decisions — a claim Erwin says is not rooted in truth.

“I think the irony about that is Louisiana had a great deal of participation in (developing) those standards and a great deal of participation on the testing,” Erwin said.

Maniscalco supports the new learning standards and is one of 60 Louisiana Department of Education teacher-leader advisers developing instructional materials aligned with the standards.

While the state has always had learning standards, she said, the Common Core standards are different in how they require a deeper understanding of a skill rather than rote learning. It is no longer enough for students to solve a math problem — they need to understand and explain, she said.

“They’re learning the why,” she said. “Even the third graders in my class are mathematicians. They’re not just third graders.”

Wednesday’s forum was the first of a planned quarterly Ed Talks series planned by the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, said Jan Swift, a LaPESC board member who moderated the forum.

The organization’s membership includes business and civic groups, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Lafayette Parish School System.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.