Two year schools focus on job training

By the time the legislative session ended earlier this month, it had become clear that Louisiana’s two-year schools had taken on a kind of favored status at the State Capitol.

Much of the reason is a projected $60 billion worth of new plant construction and plant expansions over the next several years, mostly driven by the low price of natural gas, the Louisiana Workforce Commission predicts.

The state’s community colleges and technical schools are being pressed into service. Part of the effort is a focused curriculum that can train workers in a shorter time and part is an effort to build more advanced training facilities.

Capital Area Technical College spokeswoman Tammy Brown said the idea is to get workers job-ready as quickly as possible. “We want to get them on the job and then the employer can take it from there,” and train them further, Brown said.

Earlier this month, against warnings from the state treasurer over increasing debt, legislators passed a bill allowing community and technical colleges to borrow more than $250 million to build new training facilities in nearly every corner of the state. That money puts pressure on the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, or LCTCS, to train enough welders, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled workers to meet the needs of the state’s growing industrial economy.

The LCTCS plan to offer more and more condensed training programs is supposed to take off starting in July. State agencies predict South Louisiana will see the highest demand for skilled workers over the next three years with 20,000 workers needed in Baton Rouge and another 17,000 needed in New Orleans.

Jimmy Sawtelle, senior vice president for workforce solutions with LCTCS, said industry has made the calculation that, in many cases, it’s better to attract workers with a baseline level of skill who can be trained on the job rather than waiting to hire workers whose skills are fully developed.

“Industry is telling us that if we can give them someone who’s completed their certification, they can give that person an entry-level job at $15 an hour. But industry can’t wait two semesters or nine months, so we’ve put it in a more compressed model,” Sawtelle said. “We can get them trained in 11 or 13 weeks.”

The shortened training programs are typically non-credit courses that students pay for out-of-pocket without the benefit of financial aid. They are part of a course-shuffling process the state’s community and technical colleges have engaged in dating back several years. The system has closed more than 500 programs and started 200 more since 2007.

LCTCS President Joe May said his system’s efforts are about confronting the realities of Louisiana’s economy where the majority of new jobs created over the next decade or longer will likely be in the skilled workforce sector. Those jobs, he said, require more than a high school diploma but less than a university degree.

“We give more value to four-year degrees, but as an economy, we can’t do without jobs that require a two-year degree,” May said. “What does the economy need? What does the workforce need? Those questions have to be a part of the equation.”

May called the expected boom in manufacturing and industry a “positive disruption” in the state’s economy.

“After Hurricane Katrina, we needed 29,000 construction workers; now we’re estimating that we need 86,000, so this is so many times bigger than the impact of one of the worst storms in our nation’s history,” he said. “We have to look at the jobs that create wealth and we have to look at the jobs that improve quality of life.”