LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette plans to funnel about $1.3 million into new faculty positions and personnel who will focus on producing more graduates in engineering, computing and nursing to meet workforce needs.
The money is part of the university’s $2 million allocation from the state’s new competitive Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE) Fund that enabled universities and colleges to apply for a share of $40 million to create or expand existing programs to meet workforce demands. The Legislature approved the new program and set aside the funds for state higher education institutions.
“This is an opportunity to build capacity,” said Ramesh Kolluru, the university’s vice president of research. “About $1.3 million will go into personnel and into hiring research and instructional faculty in those three areas so we can support the growth numbers that companies and the workforce need.”
Katara Williams, Board of Regents assistant commissioner of public affairs, said universities will have access to the funds in December. The Regents’ executive committee approved institutions’ plans earlier this month, and an approval by the full board at its meeting next month is a formality.
Kolluru said students could feel the impact of the new money as early as the spring. About $320,000 is available for student scholarships and assistantships, and the new faculty will enable the university to open up more high-demand courses.
“Our plans have been developed,” Kolluru said. “We are poised and ready to pull the trigger and to execute on the plan when we know the funds are available.”
The financial boost will help fund seven faculty positions and two student recruitment and retention coordinator jobs. Another $320,000 will be used to create and upgrade research and instructional labs.
“It will be significant for students,” Kolluru said of the WISE Fund investments. “We’ll have more instructional and research faculty in each of these areas to provide more opportunities for students to engage in research and scholarship.”
The largest chunk of the $2 million will be directed to computing disciplines with a goal of producing more graduates to respond to the growing information technology sector in Lafayette, Kolluru said.
About $920,000 will be used to fund two associate professor positions, a new position of student recruitment and retention coordinator, student scholarships and lab equipment.
On Tuesday, three new information technology companies that plan to begin operations in Lafayette in the coming year held a job fair to recruit future employees.
“Computing is a big area of focus for the university,” Kolluru said. “We recently recruited three IT companies in Lafayette. Between those three companies, expectations are that they’ll add 1,000 jobs in the region. These companies are depending on the university to expand the number of computing graduates.”
The university’s graduates also are being recruited by the IBM Services Center, now in Baton Rouge, and GE Capital Technology Center in New Orleans, he added.
The university’s college of engineering has grown significantly in the past six years — from 1,572 students in 2008 to 2,696 in 2014 — and about $870,000 will help support students through additional faculty, scholarships and lab equipment, Kolluru said.
Engineering will add an assistant professor position in petroleum engineering and instructors in both petroleum and mechanical engineering. The college also will add a student recruitment and retention coordinator to its staff.
The college of nursing will be able to hire two more nursing instructors to focus on its RN-to-bachelor degree fast-track program and its undergraduate programs. The college also will receive $50,000 for graduate and undergraduate student stipends and assistantships. The student aid will support five to six students annually.
As part of the WISE Fund program, institutions also had to match at least 20 percent of their allocation with existing or new funding. The university met the 20 percent match, which was about $402,000, by leveraging its existing relationships with industry partners and supporters who have invested in research, student scholarships and faculty endowments, Kolluru said.
“We were able to take advantage of all of this in documenting the required match and we were able to generate $1,322,058,” he said.
While current industry support helped the university meet the WISE Fund requirements, Kolluru said, an ongoing commitment from the WISE Council will be needed to help universities sustain and expand programs and meet workforce demands.
The investment is historic and appreciated, “but in reality, we realize to support the growth that’s expected of universities, we’ll need more in way of investments through 2020 in order to get the outcomes that the WISE Council is expecting.”
The university projects the number of students who complete computer science degrees — both undergraduate and graduate — will more than double between now and the 2020-21 academic year.
This academic year, 76 students are expected to complete the programs, while 178 students are projected to complete the programs by 2020-21, based on information the university submitted in its WISE implementation plan.
During the same time frame, the number of students who complete a degree — undergraduate and graduate — in petroleum engineering is expected to move from 66 to 89 and mechanical engineering should see a gain from 57 students completing a degree to 72.
The most dramatic increase expected is the number of registered nurses who earn a bachelor’s degree through the university’s RN-to-bachelor of science in nursing program. This year, 108 students are expected to complete the degree program, while by 2020-21 the university projects it can funnel 1,200 through to completion in the program.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.