$40 million proposal to help colleges train workers

A proposed fund to reward colleges and universities that produce graduates who fill high-demand jobs could help attract faculty to train the needed workers in the Acadiana area, a college leader said Monday.

Getting experts to leave their fields where they can earn more money in the workplace than they can teaching their profession is an obstacle to meeting workforce demands, South Louisiana Community College Chancellor Natalie Harder told the Acadiana Press Club on Monday.

The proposed $40 million fund would be used by colleges and universities in programs that supply workers in high-growth fields such as engineering, finance and accounting, computer science, data analysis, industrial production and construction crafts.

The $40 million fund — dubbed the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy plan — was developed as part of a collaboration among higher education leaders, Louisiana Economic Development and the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

The plan received the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal last week when he announced it as part of a $142 million increase for higher education — the first increase for colleges and universities in the past six years.

Harder, University of Louisiana system President Sandra Woodley and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, discussed the WISE plan during the Acadiana Press Club meeting Monday.

As part of the WISE plan proposal, colleges and universities would compete for a share of the $40 million based on their numbers of graduates in high-demand fields and their research.

The colleges and universities must match up to 20 percent of their WISE plan funding with private donations.

The WISE plan provides targeted funding to take care of growing workforce shortages that exist statewide, Woodley said.

“This gives us the first stepping stone to have an organized, strategized (way) of closing the gap,” Woodley said.

Kleckley credited Woodley and other higher education leaders for developing a unified plan to tackle higher education funding needs while addressing state workforce shortages.

Plans for nearly $60 million in business projects in southwest Louisiana, including an ethane cracker and gas-to-liquid plant in Westlake, will open up thousands of jobs for residents, but small-business owners worry that those jobs will lure away their pool of workers, Kleckley said.

“We need to make sure that there’s that supply,” Kleckley said. “This is a generational opportunity we have.”

Educating students about career opportunities needs to start before students get to college, Woodley said. She said the University of Louisiana system is working with the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance to help educate more eighth-graders about matching their interests to future workforce demands.

The UL system has rolled out a new technological tool, myedu.com, for its students to plan their academic and career paths to connect with internship opportunities and jobs, she said.

The tool is the “go-to place for students to know what are the hot jobs,” Woodley said. “I think we have to be intentional about making those connections.”

Harder said the college currently offers programs tied to the six high-growth fields identified by the state Economic Development and Workforce agencies, and is strengthening its partnerships to meet industry demands in Acadiana.

She said a new SLCC and University of Louisiana at Lafayette partnership targets the need for more software development workers through the creation of a Center for Software Excellence.

Harder said SLCC’s proposal to offer programs focused on application software development and software system analysts will be considered by the Louisiana Community and Technical College System at its meeting Wednesday.