Our Views: With all its challenges, Baton Rouge future is bright, if we can find the talent


Say what you will about the disruption of the past few years on the economy in the Baton Rouge area, the future is looking more positive than many could believe just a year or two ago.

Four leaders in the community were gathered for the annual economic forecast presentation last month organized by The Advocate and sponsored by AARP — the last, appropriately enough, as health care is a key part of the regional economy and a concern of older Americans. Despite the upbeat predictions, however, challenges remain for the region’s competitive and advanced health systems as they get their balance back after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is also a recognition that things are a-changing well beyond the sad losses of people to coronavirus.

Remote work and its post-pandemic implications for economic development are top of mind for Adam Knapp’s staff at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. A better quality of life in the city and metro area will be more vital than ever in attracting professional jobs, Knapp said.

“Talent and the availability of talent are more important for employers,” he said.

For Edgardo Teneiro of Baton Rouge General Medical Center, that means not only navigating the great nurse shortage of the pandemic years but building a stronger pipeline through schools and colleges to provide health care workers for the future. The supply of clinicians at every level in health care is “what keeps me up at night,” he said.

Overall, Knapp said a lot of young people are potential additions to expand the workforce in the region because of lower costs of living, particularly in housing.

Higher interest rates intended to curb inflation might mean higher notes for homebuyers, but broker Kendra Novak said that many homes sold for higher prices during the years of ultra-low interest rates.

She predicted that a moderation of price points on homes might offset the impact of higher interest rates, and level out the housing market.

Inflation in natural gas prices was a concern for petrochemical industries, but Connie Fabre of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance said that logistical issues are improving at local plants. If “the inflation is not fun,” she said wryly, literally billions in new industrial expansions are either under way or on the drawing boards.

“Industrial construction will be very strong for the long term,” Fabre said.

That is fundamental to the local economy, which has seen a cyclical drop in construction jobs driven by reduced activity at the plants lining the Mississippi River. With an industry emphasis on renewables and carbon capture, the scale of future projects has been “astounding to watch over (the last) two years,” Knapp said.

Overall, Knapp said, there are routinely more jobs available than jobseekers in the nine-parish metropolitan area. That puts a premium on seeing that the annual 1,000 to 1,500 graduating seniors who are not bound for college have the internships or industry training credentials to swell the available workforce.

A new Talent Action Collaborative is focused on education and workforce development, and panelists encouraged businesses to get involved.

Baton Rouge remains a region that is attractive to businesses around the country, Knapp said. “Almost every week we have another company coming in to visit,” he said.

The acid test, though, is whether the potential of the region can be achieved during a time of change — even upheaval — in the economy. The panelists said that with an all-hands-on-deck approach, growth can be achieved.

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