NATCHITOCHES – A significant shortage of skilled workers is on the horizon and it will take innovative industry, economic development and education partnerships to produce a globally competitive workforce in Louisiana, according to members of the Central and Northwest Louisiana Manufacturing Managers Councils. The business-centric groups gathered for a regional meeting Tuesday at Northwestern State University to discuss workforce training and how to prepare students for lucrative, highly technical jobs in manufacturing. NSU and the Natchitoches Community Alliance, a group that proactively promotes business retention and expansion in the parish, hosted the meeting.
Internships, apprenticeships and stackable credentials are beneficial all around, but industry needs to be more proactively engaged in K-12 education to introduce youngsters to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at an early age, particularly females and minorities. Young job seekers also need coaching in soft skills, such as business etiquette and competency behaviors such as attendance, teamwork and independent problem solving, industry leaders said.
“In the end your company is not one bit more or one bit less than your people,” said speaker Dennis Parker, assistant manager at the Toyota North American Production Support Center in Georgetown, Kentucky. “Our company will do as well as we invest in our people. Factor how good your people are compared to those who compete with you in your business.”
Parker leads the development of Advanced Manufacturing (Technician) Career Pathways initiative, which works in partnership with K-12 schools, technical colleges and universities to create pathways to employment for high school students and adults at all levels. By a show of hands, Parker determined that the most common problem for the businesses present is hiring skilled talent who are job-ready.
“The skill gap is growing because technology is creating jobs that didn’t exist. Our skilled workforce is getting older and we need more people. If we keep doing what we’ve always been doing and what everyone else is doing, we’re not going to fix the problem,” Parker said. “Are you hiring people who will effectively learn in the future and grasp the speeding train of new technology? The key factor is to get somebody who learns.”
Parker praised Project Lead the Way as the most effective K-12 STEM curriculum available. Robin Schott, vice president of PLTW’s west central region, said the goal of PLTW is “to think through how we get students inspired, engaged in the learning process at the elementary, middle school and high school level. We start students thinking early how to solve problems.”
Schott works to implement PLTW programs and align post-secondary partners so PLTW students move easily into STEM degree programs. Northwestern State is Louisiana’s affiliate university for PLTW and offers resources to schools throughout the state who have implemented PLTW on the elementary, middle and high school levels. NSU also awards credit towards its engineering technology degree program for students who complete PLTW coursework in high school.
Industry leaders also discussed the successes and challenges of incorporating internships, apprenticeship and work-based learning programs in an effort to create a pipeline from the classroom to employment.
“There is no substitute for experience to reinforce academics and technical skills taught in the classroom or laboratory,” said Dennis Epps, senior vice president for workforce Solutions for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “The students apply the skills they learned in class in real-world situations. And work-based training meets the needs of students with different learning styles.”
Woody Oge, retired director of business affairs for Ingalls Shipbuilding-Avondale and current member of the LSTCS board of supervisors, explained the training model Ingalls used for marine electricians, which encouraged employer/community college partnerships and incentives for apprenticeships such as a salary of $36,000, college credits, pay increases and training in management and leaderships skills. Participants worked 40 hours per week in the classroom and on site.
“It can be expensive but if you are not investing in your people, who are you investing in,” he asked.
Tony Davis and Dr. Ali Ahmad discussed the role of education and higher education in workforce development. Davis is the District 4 representative on Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, president and CEO of the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce and president of the Natchitoches Community Alliance. Ahmad is head of NSU’s Department of Engineering Technology, which in the last two years has developed several partnerships with other institutions and post-baccalaureate certification programs for industry professionals.
“The K-12 bar is higher than it’s ever been in Louisiana,” Davis said, encouraging industry leaders to be more closely involved not only with their local economic development entities but also with their school boards by attending meetings and making their needs known.
Ahmad discussed the increase in enrollment that has occurred in engineering technology at Northwestern, a result of PLTW, industry becoming increasingly engaged with high school students through scholarship opportunities and partnerships with community and technical colleges that allow students who complete the Certificate for Manufacturing (C4M) to transfer the credits toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology.
“Engineering technologists work between the design engineer and the technician to bridge the gap between design and operations,” Ahmad said. NSU also developed an associate degree in engineering technology that will transfer to CLTCC when that institution completes accreditation.
“The integration between our two systems is unique. We are working collectively to make something different happen. We are always looking for ways to work with industry,” Ahmad said.
“Central and northwest Louisiana have been leaders in C4M and the neat thing is it’s stackable. It can be a building block for an associate degree on up to a bachelor’s degree,” Epps said. “The partnership we have with NSU is remarkable. Programs are structured so that students never have to back up. C4M also available to incumbent workers. This works because we’re all at the table together. And people are paying attention to what we’re doing.”
In a modern world, industry needs to change, adapt and modify, Epps said.
“Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be but the public perception is still largely there,” he said. “We need a better model to create a globally competitive workforce.”