Our Views: The elusive quality worker

The Advocate

While it’s a bigger deal in Baton Rouge, the vast expansion of the petrochemical complex along the Mississippi River is a big deal for the entire state.

Not only will the demand for qualified workers — emphasis on the “qualified” — tax the numbers in the workforce, but such a sudden demand throws into high relief the deeply built-in deficiencies of our state and our population.

A report from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber focuses on the STEM disciplines — science and technology, engineering and mathematics — and lays out an extensive program for schools and universities in its area to improve.

The report ought to be on the reading list for others around the state, too, because of the impressive nature of the immediate demands for industrial construction jobs that require skilled workers. Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, as just one example, has pushed for job training that can steer disadvantaged workers to higher-paying jobs, like those in the new construction along the river.

But the BRAC report also notes that, as with many other communities in our state, the attention paid to STEM preparation in our schools has lagged.

That has profound implications for the growth of high-tech businesses across the state, whether in Baton Rouge, New Orleans or Lafayette. The petrochemical boom in the Lake Charles area, including natural gas export facilities, is among the biggest expansions of industrial employment anywhere.

Where do we stand?

Louisiana now requires all students to take the ACT, the college preparation test, as it is a strong measure for the performance of the educational system. The ACT determines whether students are college-ready with benchmark scores: Students who achieve the benchmark scores have a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher, or a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher, in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses.

The national benchmarks for mathematics and science are 22 and 23. “In the Capital Region, the average mathematics score in 2013 was 18, while the average science score was 17.9,” BRAC commented. “Not a single Capital Region district achieved average scores at or above the benchmark level.”

If that is not the case elsewhere, it is pretty rare that student performances on average in our state are at the national level. College attainment also is low in the population, according to Census Bureau data. Just 27 percent of residents of Louisiana over age 25 have attained an associate’s degree or higher, of which those who have attained only an associate’s degree comprise only 5 percent.

The good news for the capital city is that it is a center for major colleges and with significant state hiring of the college-educated. But still, for Louisiana overall, these are not the levels of educational quality that will grow high-tech employment in the future. The relatively low attainment of associate degrees reflect that in Louisiana, with the exception of the long-established Delgado, our state was slow to the adoption of community colleges.

All these challenges are pertinent to just about every region of Louisiana. The issues are starker because of the industrial construction boom.

We want to see more young people, in the oft-repeated words of Gov. Bobby Jindal, live in Louisiana and follow their dreams here. We must prepare them to make a good living if that is to happen.

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