The Baton Rouge area’s college enrollment is at an all-time high, and local businesses must focus on keeping those students in town after they graduate to solve the region’s workforce needs, according to an economic report from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
In all, 58,641 students were enrolled across LSU, Southern University, Baton Rouge Community College, River Parishes Community College and Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, according to BRAC’s 2023 Economic Outlook, released Tuesday. That figure is up from 55,025 in fall 2021 and 48,556 in fall 2018.
The bulk of those students — 37,354 of them — are at LSU. The university’s enrollment hovered around 30,000 to 31,000 from 2017 to 2019 before a burst to 34,290 in fall 2020.
Southern University’s population hit 7,846 this fall, up from 7,091 two years ago. BRCC has 9,684 enrollees this year, up from 7,742 last year.
Meanwhile, for the third straight year, workforce issues topped the list of potential impediments to growth, according to business leaders surveyed by BRAC. Some 30% of survey respondents listed workforce troubles as a top concern, followed by crime rates (19%) and traffic (8%).
BRAC officials said the report shows, “to no one’s surprise,” that workforce needs will be a top priority in 2023.
“The good news is that net migration is rapidly improving, and we continue to see an increase in Capital Region population growth and expect a steady increase through 2025,” BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp said in a statement. “Our opportunity comes in increasing young professional talent retention, which we see net migration loss for ages 25 to 34, but an increase in ages 35 to 44. Baton Rouge has the potential to be a hot spot for young talent, as we see another year of college student growth, abundant job openings, and increased wages.”
The Baton Rouge metro area’s population is expected to grow to about 881,000 by 2025, a modest ride from about 872,000 in 2021.
However, the region is still struggling to attract younger workers, or those ages 25 to 44. Population totals in that age range fell by 754 in the region in 2021 and by 593 in 2020, an improvement from the 3,003-person drop recorded in 2018.
On the flip side, the BRAC report said the Baton Rouge area added 1,218 people in the 35-to-39 age range in 2021, and 831 people in the 40-to-44 range.
A return to pre-pandemic job totals “may take a while,” the report says. The region has averaged 398,300 jobs this year, up from 384,600 in 2020 but down from 413,000 in 2019. BRAC’s highest projection has Baton Rouge reaching about 410,000 jobs by 2024.
Overall employment is up from 394,213 in March 2020 to 409,309 in October 2022.
Baton Rouge’s median household income is $58,276, below the U.S. average of $69,717. BRAC’s report said the lagging figure is likely due to lagging jobs recovery in the high-paying construction industry.
However, the report notes that billions of dollars’ worth of industrial project investments could be announced in 2023, which would supercharge the region’s construction sector.
New business activity appears to be rising. Business applications in the Capital Region have doubled from 11,042 in 2019 to 20,773 this year, and existing businesses increased from 23,978 in the first quarter of 2020 to 26,688 in the same quarter this year. About 38,000 applications have been filed in the last two years.
The BRAC report highlighted about $2.6 billion in capital investments announced for Baton Rouge this year, led by Origin Materials’ $750 million wood-to-plastics plant in Ascension Parish.