Executives express need for skilled workers in La.

Concerns about the need for quality craftsmen to fuel growth measured in scores of billions of dollars dominated a panel discussion Thursday about Louisiana’s emerging industrial boom.

Steven Grissom, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, said companies have committed since 2008 to spending more than $50 billion on plant expansions and construction of new facilities that mean 80,000 new jobs.

“We’re at the very beginning,” Grissom told an audience of hundreds at the L’Auberge Casino & Hotel Baton Rouge.

Grissom said during the panel discussion among leaders in the chemical, construction, energy and consulting fields that many more billions are expected over the next several years.

The discussion was hosted by the Kean Miller law firm and Regions Bank.

As long as oil remains priced roughly at seven times the price of natural gas, Gulf Coast states will “knock the socks off” competitors in other nations, said Dan S. Borné, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association.

“We’re importing jobs from overseas and exporting natural gas now,” Borné added.

Larry DeRoussel, executive director of the Lake Charles Area Alliance Organization, said members of that group already are working with community college officials and other groups to ensure that area is prepared to benefit from the coming industrial boom.

Some words of caution, however, were voiced by Roland Toups, chairman and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge construction and engineering firm of Turner Industries Group.

“We’re very, very optimistic about the future,” Toups said, but he added some plants can be announced as coming to Louisiana one month and canceled the next.

“Think about the working man,” Toups urged. Tens of thousands of craftsmen are needed for projects already planned in Louisiana, he said, but some won’t come to the state and others may leave if too many cancellations occur.

Toups added that the U.S. has a high demand for engineers and a shortage of available talent in that field. While colleges in the U.S. graduate 60,000 engineers each year, Toups said, China and India are graduating 300,000.

Toups predicted the big boom in building won’t really begin in Louisiana until 2015 or 2016.

Bill Slaughter, founder and president of SSA Consultants, said the state continues to suffer from a shortage of skilled plant operators and skilled medical workers.

“The competition for good people is going to increase as we go forward,” Slaughter said. “The salary wars already have begun.”

If tens of thousands of additional workers will be needed by 2015 or 2016, Slaughter told business owners, competitors “are coming after your people, your best people.”

Engineers in Houston are beginning to take home $300,000 annually, Slaughter said, so companies in need of engineering and other services better know what their reputations are with their employees and similar workers in other states or regions.

“Google yourself and find out what people are saying about you,” Slaughter recommended.

Build safe and reliable plants, recommended Stan Knez, president of Technip Stone & Webster Process Technology. Safe and reliable will cost less in the long run, Knez added.

Knez added that all construction and engineering firms need to deliver new plants on budget and on time in order to ensure the boom continues.

Charles F. Freeburgh, vice president for advocacy at Axiall Corp., a major chemical manufacturer, agreed with Knez.

Quality worksmanship remains paramount, Freeburgh said before teasing: “That’s been true since Roland Toups was using a slide rule at Georgia Tech.”

Toups grinned at the joke, but warned that trouble grew from Louisiana’s huge industrial boom of the 1960s.

“Everybody wanted their plant built at the same time,” Toups recalled, adding that there was a tremendous demand for skilled workers.

“Greed set in, greed and corruption,” Toups said. “When I say corruption, spell it with a capital C.”

Government corruption combined with demands for skilled labor and higher wages to produce bitter disputes, Toups added.

“It led to violence in our plants that was unprecedented,” Toups said. “We had bombings in Baton Rouge. It was a vigilante town. There was murder.”

Things got so bad that Gov. John McKeithen ordered a halt “to all construction work in Louisiana,” Toups added.

Toups said he has confidence that such lawlessness would be thwarted today by State Police Col. Mike Edmonson and U.S. Attorney Walt Green, but he warned business leaders: “You can’t repeat this stuff, guys.”