Columns » Clancy DuBos

Workforce SOS

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Kudos to the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) for surveying Louisiana employers about workforce quality issues and other factors that inhibit job growth in our state. The CABL survey was released last Friday, and its results are sobering.

More than 70 percent of Louisiana employers report difficulties hiring qualified workers, and nearly 40 percent say it's more difficult now than it was five years ago. More than 40 percent say they have a hard time finding applicants with even basic reading skills.

At the same time, some 47 percent of employers say the skill needs of entry-level employees are rising, which means we face a growing chasm between much of our workforce's abilities and the skill sets needed to get work locally.

So how are employers getting by?

Nearly half say they either hired someone less qualified or left positions unfilled. As a result, many companies lowered their productivity and output levels, delayed expansion or development of new services, or reduced quality -- not the message Louisiana wants to send to the world.

"What we have is the perfect storm of all the things we don't want to see," says CABL President Barry Erwin. "Employers have a hard time finding qualified workers, skill needs are increasing, but even the most basic skills are in alarmingly short supply. How is Louisiana to maintain, much less grow business with conditions like this?"

CABL (www.cabl.org) is a non-partisan think tank based in Baton Rouge. As a disclaimer, I should point out that I am a recent graduate of CABL's Leadership Louisiana class of 2004. The experience was a real eye-opener. I've always had lots of respect for CABL, but the leadership class really gave me a close look at the organization, the issues it examines, and the positive difference CABL tries to make for Louisiana. In my book, CABL has credibility.

In addition to the workforce problems, the survey also found lingering concerns among many employers about the negative perceptions of Louisiana, particularly those related to public education, politics and corruption -- and the debilitating effect they have on our business climate. Employer concerns about public education (45 percent) ranked ahead of politics and corruption (41 percent) in a list of the most negative things about doing business in Louisiana, but the No. 1 concern was the cost or availability of health insurance (48 percent). Business taxes were cited by a significant number of employers (35 percent), but not as much as government regulations and red tape (nearly 40 percent) or the availability of quality labor (36 percent).

The good news is that a significant number of employers (36 percent) expect business conditions to improve in the next 12 months -- compared to less than 15 percent who say things will get worse. Forty-nine percent expect things to stay the same. In addition, 27 percent expect to increase their workforce, while less than 14 percent expect to reduce their workforce.

Another positive finding was that Louisiana's traditional strengths -- cheap labor, proximity to major transportation routes and abundance of natural resources -- remain among our drawing cards. But the most-cited positive reason employers would give to out-of-state business leaders for locating in Louisiana is our culture and quality of life.

That's news.

The survey buttresses the efforts of Gov. Kathleen Blanco and others to improve public education at the K-12 levels, to offer better public health care, to continue cleaning up our politics and to let the arts and culture play a bigger role in our economic development efforts. It also sounds an SOS on the education and workforce development fronts.

"One message is abundantly clear," the CABL report states. "Most of the problems associated with a quality workforce are not with our university or college-educated students. Employers are having the most trouble finding workers with basic skills, problem solving skills and work ethic. That means we must continue to improve pre-K through 12 public schools for the long term. But in the very short term, we must act on substantive solutions that improve our high schools, decrease dropouts, increase literacy and critical thinking skills of our workers, and provide more highly accessible quality training programs and high-skill/technology credentials for students and adults." That's a tall order, but failing to address those issues will only make things worse.

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