Officials laud Baker workforce development program

More than 130 students have completed skilled trade classes in welding, electrical, millwright, pipefitting and water operations since the Baker Workforce Development Center opened in January, and area officials say it’s the kind of program that should be replicated around the state.

The center, located at 3262 Baker Blvd. and operated by Baton Rouge Community College, now enrolls about two dozen men and one woman, all of whom are working on skills they hope will net them high-paying jobs in the upcoming industrial boom officials are touting.

The building, formerly an Advocate newspaper distribution center and later a Baker Fire Department station, underwent extensive remodeling thanks to a cooperative effort of businesses and local, state and federal governments, Baker Mayor Harold Rideau said.

Students meet in two classrooms and hone their skills on machinery in the large, un-air-conditioned garage bays.

“It was a lot of work — we’ve been working on this thing for a year and a half,” Rideau said to a small, perspiring audience gathered in front of the building.

“For 35 years, I did machinist-millwright work; I did instrument electrical work; I did pipefitting work,” Rideau said. “I know how important this is, and it is important that we do it, and I thank God for this opportunity.”

Rideau’s comments came during a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday designed to bring public attention to a workforce development program that has been embraced by elected officials and area business leaders.

The Stupp Corporation provided the initial $10,000 for renovations, and the state, through a bill authored by Rep. Dalton Honoré, of District 63, allocated an additional $50,000, according to an event handout.

Other donations include $10,000 from ExxonMobil, $8,000 from the Louisiana Construction Education Foundation for welding equipment and a three-phase transformer from Entergy.

“We have a major focus on helping the businesses and industry in our service areas to have a skilled workforce, and we’re thankful to be a part of it,” said Andrea Lewis Miller, chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College. “We know it will make a difference in the communities we serve.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter congratulated those involved in the project, saying, “This is exactly the model we need to use and replicate around Louisiana.

“The good news is that we will have enormous job opportunities in Louisiana with a lot of big industrial projects coming online in the next five years,” Vitter said. “The challenge is we need a lot more programs like this to provide the skilled workforce to put Louisianians in all those great opportunities.”

HonorĂ© said he was glad to be able to find the state funding. “It gives me great pleasure to be here today — we have approximately 85,000 jobs coming here, and we realize how important this is,” Honore said.

“This is a testament that we should not ever despise small beginnings,” Workforce Committee member and Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said.

She said no one envisioned the workplace development center would become such a great project when officials were meeting about it over a year ago.

“A lot of the business boom will be in north Baton Rouge, and I’m excited about that,” Banks-Daniel said.

Meanwhile, inside the building, the students, all wearing red BRCC polo shirts, white hard hats and safety glasses, were testing electrical systems and milling and threading pipe.

Byron Bradford, 30, already an experience welder who is married and has a daughter, said he is in the last few weeks of a millwright program that is providing him with opportunities for advancement.

“We’re getting skills that a lot of people have to go through three- or four-year programs, but we are getting it at a rabbit pace,” Bradford said. “I want to be completely stable with a company and have a long-term career and not just a job.”

Andrea Tucker, 54, married and mother of five children ages 17 to 33, has been a certified nurse’s assistant for the last 20 years and was anticipating a new career as a millwright — a rare job for a woman, she said with a big smile.

“I understand there are a lot of opportunities for women in this field, so I’m taking advantage of it,” Tucker said. “I’m looking for an entry-level position and work my way up.”

Fleet Wallace, a career millwright-machinist and instructor since 1968, said the students are all enthusiastic about the classes and dedicate themselves to their new skills.

“This the best class I’ve had in all the classes I’ve ever taught,” Wallace said. “They have to be here on time, they have to dress appropriately and they have to act appropriately. They are very dedicated.”

For more information call (225) 778-0300, or visit BRCC at www.mybrcc.edu.