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Economists: Louisiana Must Use Data for Workforce Decisions

A panel at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry's annual meeting advised that state officials rely on data to develop higher education and training programs to address the state’s major labor needs.

(TNS) — Louisiana state officials need to better utilize workforce data to develop programs that address major labor needs, economic experts told business leaders Thursday at a forum during the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry's annual meeting.

Though Louisiana's job totals have largely rebounded since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, businesses are grappling with a low availability of workers as an industrial boom is looming.

Every state should create a labor market analytics team to provide reports on labor gaps by region, occupation and sector, said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Strada Education Network and a former Louisiana Economic Development secretary. Moret said some states have done so "at kind of a small scale."

Those labor reports should then be matched with higher education and workforce training programs to close those gaps, Moret said.

"No one's really nailed it yet, though. There are a few states that are doing some really great stuff," Moret said. "There's plenty of time for Louisiana to catch up and actually be one of the leaders on this topic."

"Louisiana's budget is tens of billions," Moret added. "For $1 million a year, $1.5 million a year, this would be transformational."

Stephen Barnes, director of the Blanco Public Policy Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the state has been collecting occupational and wage data for at least eight years. He said the figures are a "gold mine" that have been largely underutilized.

"Louisiana just needs to sort of flip the switch, and we've got almost a decade worth of data that we can start working with today," he said.

LABI officials on Thursday touted the organization's new LA23 initiative, which aims to turn business leader feedback into an economic "road map" for prosperity by 2030. One of the initiative's pillars is bolstering the state's workforce pipeline.

Ted Abernathy, managing partner of Economic Leadership and a consultant on the LA23 initiative, said Louisiana needs to address its dwindling working age population, or people ages 25 to 64.

Louisiana is only one of six states with a projected working age population loss from now until 2031, according to statistics Abernathy presented. Louisiana also ranked in the bottom third of states for population growth from 2011 to 2021, and it is only one of 13 states with a labor force participation rate under 60 percent.

Abernathy pointed to other southern states as examples of success stories, such as Alabama, whose workforce development rank shot up from 26th in 2012 to 13th in 2021.

Alabama created a statewide workforce system, Alabama Works!, to bolster its talent supply, Abernathy said. In 2016 it created a tax credit for businesses that implement apprenticeships.

Business chambers have helped lead economic competitiveness changes in other southern states, Abernathy said.

"Workforce development rankings can be moved pretty quickly," Abernathy said. "You put some innovative programs in, and you'll all of a sudden move up those rankings pretty quickly."

Moret, who also held top positions at the LSU Foundation and Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said aligning workforce and education programs with business needs is a "huge issue" in Louisiana and nationwide. His latest employer, Strada, is a nonprofit that addresses barriers for workers looking for greater economic mobility.

Moret said high-demand labor programs, such as health care, computer science and engineering, are more costly than general or liberal arts programs. He added that Louisiana's overreliance on four-year universities, as opposed to two-year community colleges, makes the state's higher education system more expensive.

"If we don't account for that in the way that we fund postsecondary education — and largely we do not, not just in Louisiana but nationwide — we're essentially disincentivizing institutions to be responsive to market demand," Moret said.

Barnes said the state should focus more attention on training programs for recently unemployed workers looking to get "plugged back into the modern economy."

"We've got to do more investment in the K-12 system to make sure we're keeping kids engaged all the way through high school and getting them guidance and career coaching and the support system that they need to be able to transition to post-secondary education," he said.

(c)2023 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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