Report: Not enough skilled workers for coming influx of energy jobs

Report: Not enough skilled workers for coming influx of energy jobs

Abby Tabor / Houma Courier

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wwltv.com

Posted on February 4, 2014 at 11:37 AM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 4 at 4:05 PM

John Harper / Houma Courier

The energy boom has been credited in another report for bringing tens of thousands of expected jobs to south Louisiana, this time at the heels of $21 billion in planned energy and manufacturing investment.

But the report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center also highlights the worries of those who have long said the region does not have enough workers to fill the jobs and mentions a “skills gap” in there not being enough employees trained and educated to do the needed work.

“Employers will be able to meet some of their demand for labor by offering high wages to attract workers from across the nation,” the report says. “But, the aggregate supply of middle-skilled labor nationally is too low.”

About 42,000 new jobs are expected to become available in the next six years, according to the report that highlights the challenge of attracting workers to these jobs.

“Raising awareness of these job opportunities will be challenging because many potential workers live in areas spatially isolated from the sites of industrial expansion along the Mississippi River and elsewhere,” the report says.

As the number of students attending and graduating from four-year universities has risen, companies and recruiting services in south Louisiana have already reported shortages in help-wanted positions, such as welders, pipefitters and ship fitters.

While south Louisiana touts exceptional unemployment rates, the state's rate of "non-employed" people, including those who have stopped looking for work and are not counted in unemployment statistics, is roughly on par with the national average, the report says.

About 50,000 working age adults in Terrebonne and Lafourche parish are classified as non-employed, meaning they are either looking for a job and unemployed or have dropped out of the job market altogether.

Attracting and training these workers, who fall between the 20 percent of area high school graduates who attend four-year universities and the 20 percent unwilling or unable to work in skilled jobs, is the challenge presented in the report.

Just providing training may not be enough to find workers to fill the jobs, said Alan Barreca, Tulane University labor economist.

“The problem may have to do with restrictive credit,” Barreca said. “Just because there is a job that pays high doesn't mean a potential worker or unemployed person can get the cash they need to take the job. They can't just take out a loan to buy a car and go to school, especially if they are already unemployed.”

Public transportation, or the lack thereof, was a highlight of report, which drew several examples of successfully implemented public transit systems around the country that have increased access to workers.

“Texas' largest rural transit authority has established a coach bus system from a park-n-ride facility in Liberty, Texas, just outside of Houston,” the report says. “The coach delivers workers to major oil refineries nearby. Revenues from fares — set at ten dollars a day — and employer subsidies support the system, without which, many workers would not be able to access their jobs.”

The report also discussed a program in the Miami area that provides paid apprenticeships for qualified job candidates.

Even local technical colleges are often unaffordable for capable job candidates, Nicol Blanchard, College & Career transition coordinator at Fletcher Technical Community College.

Jane Arnette, South Central Industrial Association executive director in charge of the local workforce programs, said she does not think local groups such as hers can fully cope with the growing demand for labor.

“Absolutely not, we need a statewide awareness campaign,” Arnette said. “I firmly believe we have to look at long-term solutions. It's going to take a mountain not a hill.”

That challenge is nothing new to local trade groups, particularly the South Central Industrial Association, which has organized and paid for programs to engage non-employed sectors of the population through advocacy.

This past year the group campaigned to put posters in classrooms that advertise the benefits of enrolling in technical career training, even touting salaries and job benefits.

Jill Zimmerman, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said the commission hopes the delay on several major projects will give the state time to develop more workers.

The commission's Workforce Task Force, which includes representatives from the industrial association and other groups across the state, last year published a plan aimed at developing a craft workforce capable of filling 35,000 new jobs by 2016.

The task force plan identifies unemployed workers, veterans and high school students as potential sources of new labor. Both the task force plan and Community Data Center report indicate that eliminating barriers to employment, such as criminal background checks, could help alleviate some workforce woes.

“Research shows that criminal records are too significant a factor in many hiring situations and qualified labor is being dismissed on grounds unrelated to their abilities to perform the job,” the Community Data Center report said.

Arnette and local recruitment services have encountered another employment barrier: drug tests. Recruiting company Hutco recently noted as many as three in five job candidates fail pre-employment drug screening.

Not being able to pass a drug test, dress appropriately for work or be on time are hiring hindrances.

“This is a big deal in economics, is what's called soft skills,” Barreca said. “We don't know how to measure soft skills. But when people don't have the basic skills to keep a job it certainly presents a larger problem. It's a huge problem.”

Arnette wants soft skills, including what she describes as work ethic and business manners, included in high school curriculum.

If the state can't figure out how to prepare its workers and alleviate the shortages in time for companies to make their investments, Barreca said basic economics indicates companies may choose to make their investments elsewhere.

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