Our Views: A challenge for training

A veritable fountain of new employment awaits the skilled laborers and thousands of others needed to build Louisiana’s newest wave of petrochemical industry.

In the relatively small market of the Lake Charles region, home to the Calcasieu River petrochemical complex, work already is planned to the tune of billions. But in the state’s larger Mississippi River complex of refineries and petrochemical manufacturers, investments totaling $21 billion “will likely be the largest job creator in southeast Louisiana for years to come.”

It’s a more populous area than the Calcasieu River region but it still will require 42,000 skilled workers for “energy-catalyzed” investments, and that is a lot of folks.

That prediction from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center has been echoed by state and local leaders and particularly in the education community.

The latter now are on the hot seat.

Not only should the tsunami of new openings require a significant number of workers with at least a high school diploma complemented by various levels of training, from welders to pump operators, as the report by George Hobor and Elaine Ortiz noted, there is a wave of retirements washing through the existing refineries and plants along the river, as baby boomer technicians and operators retire.

“The ability of employers to meet their demand for middle-skilled labor is a national issue,” the report authors said. “Supply has not kept up with demand. Many potential workers in southeast Louisiana’s cities and suburbs represent a possible untapped resource.”

That resource will not be tapped without investments in the wells — the community colleges and technical classes that will train workers. Certificates earned will translate into good jobs.

In fact, says Monty Sullivan, until recently president of Delgado Community College in New Orleans, the students are sometimes hired away as they acquire skills but before they stay long enough for a certificate.

Sullivan, newly promoted to head of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, is a Louisiana native who has worked at both the system office and Delgado.

He told editors of The Advocate that the system is working in unparalleled cooperation with four-year colleges, the state Workforce Commission and others to provide the training that lines up with these opportunities in the energy boom.

That is going to be needed.

Louisiana was a bit late to the community college concept, behind other states. Technical schools were scattered around the state, providing some instruction but also a lot of political jobs. Only Delgado and Bossier Parish Community College — and to a limited extent two-year LSU campuses in Alexandria and Eunice — filled a gap for workers looking for skills training at a more advanced level. With the leadership of then-Gov. Mike Foster, a vast expansion of community colleges was undertaken, and now is the time for those investments to pay off.

They will, we think handsomely, so long as there is cooperation and support in their vital mission.