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Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Cranes operate last month at the Cheniere Sabine Pass LNG Terminal, one of the projects driving industrial construction in southwest Louisiana.

Louisiana’s construction industry is headed for another strong year in 2016, with job growth expected in the Lake Charles and New Orleans areas, according to speakers at the South Louisiana Economic Forum.

“I picture it as fairly level. … The good part about it, we just had in our local operation the best year ever,” said Newton Thomas, chief executive officer of The Newtron Group. “And we’re seeing it as level, so life is good.”

Thomas was one of three panel members at the forum, which drew about 200 people. The forum was organized by Construction Financial Management Association and Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. Pelican Chapter.

Andy Dupuy, CEO of Brown & Root Industrial Services, said he sees a lot of opportunity for the company, which specializes in plant maintenance.

“What really needs to happen is the price of oil needs to go up a little bit and get these LNG plants going. … If they get built, it will keep all those other contractors busy and we can do all the work in the space,” Dupuy joked.

Conrad Bourg, president of James Industrial, said he expects things to slow down in the Baton Rouge area after two great years, but southwest Louisiana, as well as Houston to Corpus Christi, Texas, will be very strong.

All of the panelists said the major issue for the industry is filling the demand for skilled workers.

ABC, schools and employers are training workers as fast as possible, Dupuy said. While those workers may be trained and certified, they still lack the experience the industry needs.

Meanwhile, Anirban Basu, chief economist for Construction Financial Management Association and Associated Builders and Contractors, said low energy prices have been a drag on Louisiana’s economy as well as the construction industry.

“Being up in Maryland and thinking about the Louisiana economy, what we hear almost on a daily basis is some massive industrial project now in the works,” Basu said. “So I was actually surprised when I saw that Louisiana over the past year has lost 2,100 construction jobs, and then it hit me: oil and natural gas.”

A lot of people employed on oil and gas projects have lost work, Basu said.

Over the 12 months ending in September, New Orleans lost 1,400 construction jobs. Baton Rouge added 6,700.

Although Louisiana is among the states that has recovered all of the jobs lost during the Great Recession, the job growth rate has been just 0.1 percent, Basu said. That’s just one-twentieth of the U.S. growth rate, admittedly not great. Louisiana was No. 47 in job growth.

The worst-performing states, aside from Louisiana, were Oklahoma, Alaska, Wyoming, West Virginia and North Dakota, Basu said. Those results were all about natural resources.

But this is just a transitional phase, Basu said. There’s a lot of work coming Louisiana’s way: $16 billion in projects announced for 2016 in the Baton Rouge area and $13.6 billion in New Orleans.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.