Sasol, the South African conglomerate that’s building an $11 billion industrial project in Calcasieu Parish, has hired a little more than 550 plant employees and put to rest concerns enough skilled craft workers could be found to build the project, a company official said Tuesday.

“The contractors we brought in really knew what they were doing,” said Michael Hayes, manager of government and industry affairs for Sasol North America. “And the downturn in the oil industry really helped us get a lot of talented individuals.”

He said 80 percent of the 550 hired for world-scale ethane cracker and derivatives plant were from Louisiana. Of those local employees, 90 percent were from southwest Louisiana he told participants in a Statewide Economic Development Summit Tuesday at L’Auberge Casino Hotel.

Hayes was one of the panelists at the day-long summit, which was sponsored by a coalition of regional economic development organizations, including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, GNO Inc., One Acadiana and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

So far, the construction work at Sasol has met or exceeded all productivity measures. “Our issues with productivity have more to do with what’s fallen out of the sky,” Hayes said. “We had record levels of rainfall during this project. Now as we get ready to start up, prepare for a drought.”

Phased commissioning of the Sasol plant is set to begin this year. By 2019 Sasol's overall employment will top 1,150 in southwest Louisiana. An additional 1,000 contractors also will support Sasol's East and West Plants, once new units are operating.

Rebecca Gehman, director of talent attraction for Development Counsellors International, which helps economic development agencies attract investors and workers, discussed the myths about luring workers during another discussion.

Gehman said while there’s a school of thought that people aren’t looking to change jobs because of the low unemployment rate, that’s not the case. She cited a survey that shows about 30 percent of working-age individuals are looking for new jobs at least weekly. And 46 percent of those people polled are willing to relocate for a job in the next five years, with 57 percent of workers under 35 saying they are up for a move.

“Money matters,” said Gehman, who moved from New Jersey to Baton Rouge in 2017. The key factors people are looking at are cost of living, housing costs and housing availability.

To lure workers, economic development agencies need to work along with tourism groups to showcase up-and-coming neighborhoods and places where local residents live and play, she said.

“To win the war on talent, you don’t need to spend millions of dollars, you need to fight smarter,” Gehman said.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.

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