A GNO, Inc. program with Delgado Community College is preparing high school students for jobs known to be in demand by prospective employers. Credit: GNO, Inc.

Loosely translated, the Chinese word for “crisis” means “danger” plus “opportunity.” Considering workforce, there’s no doubt we have a crisis in Greater New Orleans.

The trick is to turn it into an opportunity.

When I started at GNO, Inc. six years ago, “workforce” was cited as just one important issue among many.  When we asked businesses to list their biggest challenges, we would get back a diverse list of dissatisfactions: unorthodox taxes, permits, education, crime, infrastructure, and, yes, workforce.  But at the most recent GNO, Inc. board retreat, when we asked leaders what they thought was the greatest future threat to business growth, the answer was near-unanimous:  “workforce.”

What has changed?  Well, for starters, we are now the fastest growing economy in the United States.  Roaring back from Katrina, we sit at the epicenter of the next great energy boom; lead the country in exports; are building the Mission to Mars out at the Michoud Assembly Facility; are the nation’s fastest growing tech market; are constructing a $2 billion-plus medical district; and, are about to spend billions more shoring up the coast.  We are experiencing growing pains — because, for the first time in about 40 years, we are growing.

These growing pains will be exacerbated by mass retirements, as waves of technical workers leave the workforce.  Due to a couple of generations of parents telling kids that a four-year degree is the only path to success, our ranks of technical workers have atrophied. The average age of a welder in the U.S. is now 54.

Stepping back, the workforce crisis is really a syndrome, with three interrelated issues:

  • First, we have a lack of hard skills.  Current estimates show that by 2023 we’ll need 30,000 more workers with skilled trade and technical skills than are projected to be trained.

  • Second, we have a challenge with soft skills.  Literacy is a basic issue. A majority of adults entering adult basic education read below the sixth-grade level, and, with Louisiana’s incarceration rate the highest in the world, re-entry is a major barrier.

  • Finally, we have broad transportation and infrastructure challenges.  The jobs are on the river and coast, but the people live in the cities — and no train or bus exists to connect them.  Rental housing is increasingly expensive, and childcare is a problem, especially for single parents.

Its complexity does not mean the workforce crisis can be ignored.  Without adequate workers, new companies will not come to Greater New Orleans.  Existing companies will expand elsewhere.  The bottom line: If we do not address workforce comprehensively and aggressively, it will stall our recovery.

This is the danger of the workforce crisis, but it is also the opportunity.  Consider these demand numbers in selected industries by 2023:

  • Energy & Manufacturing: over 57,000 jobs

  • Medical: nearly 22,000 jobs

  • Digital: over 10,000 jobs

  • Water Management: nearly 20,000 jobs

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]Going forward, we must transition our workforce system to become more demand-driven, recognizing the employer as the ultimate client.[/module]These are conservative estimates, and cover only direct jobs; the support jobs created by these industries will be perhaps five times greater.

 So, here it is:  If we aggressively address the three parts of the workforce crisis — hard skills, soft skills and infrastructure — we have an opportunity to create tens of thousands of jobs for our community.  More specifically, if we do this well, we will catalyze creation of an expanded middle class, ensuring that many more residents of Greater New Orleans are participating in what the publisher of Forbes calls “the greatest economic turnaround of our lifetime.”

 The key to realizing this opportunity, while avoiding the dangers imminent in our workforce crisis, is to reorient our workforce system.  Historically, not just in Louisiana but nationally, workforce has been focused on processing job seekers through training programs.  Institutional reward has been based on volume (certificates, graduation rate, etc.) Workforce has been supply-driven.  The result has been the creation of workers whose skill sets are not necessarily aligned with current and future jobs.

Going forward, we must transition our workforce system to become more demand-driven, recognizing the employer as the ultimate client.  That is, we have to understand the current and future employment demands of the business community and then prepare our community for these jobs.

We recently saw a good example of demand-driven training with the announcement that the University of New Orleans would be introducing two new graduate certificates in coastal sciences and engineering.  UNO developed these certificates along with GNO, Inc. We surveyed the business community about the skills they would need as we begin to spend billions on coastal restoration.  Right after this announcement, Latter & Blum, the local real estate firm, announced a $100,000 gift to support the program, clearly demonstrating that the business community will get behind smart workforce training.

And demand-driven programs are scalable.  Laitram, the global manufacturing firm headquartered in Jefferson, invested in a training and internship program with Southeastern University in Hammond that was so successful Laitram has now expanded it to LSU, UNO and Delgado.

Working with our many partners, GNO, Inc. will continue to push on improved hard-skill training.  For example, in partnership with Delgado, we hosted a Craft Skills Expo for 520 regional high school students. They heard from representatives of companies such as Shell and Turner that they could dual-enroll in technical training while still in high school, and then graduate within 18 months to a $60,000 job, with benefits. As a result of their participation in the Expo, students from Warren Easton Charter High School are now dual-enrolled at Delgado, and have completed core courses certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

We will also support efforts to address soft skills, including the multifaceted post-incarceration re-entry programs promoted by the New Orleans Business Council and the City of New Orleans, along with numerous community stakeholders.

On transportation infrastructure, GNO, Inc., along with our Super Region partners in Baton Rouge, is working on establishing commuter train service between New Orleans and the state capital, which will go a long way towards connecting residents with jobs.

The workforce crisis in Greater New Orleans is real.  Ironically, due to our success in recovering from disaster, it could get worse.  We recognize that there are many groups across the region that see this crisis, and appreciate both the risks and the potential reward.

Working together — with the same focus and partnership that have served us well in addressing other post-Katrina challenges — we can succeed, transcending the danger, and realizing the vast opportunity ahead for our workforce, our companies and our community.

Michael Hecht is the President and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., the regional economic development organization for Southeast Louisiana.