Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of reports looking at key issues in advance of the Oct. 22 election.
At a September job fair in Lafayette, the line of people waiting to interview for jobs at a new Burlington Coat Factory snaked around a hotel ballroom.
Christine Cormier, of Rayne, was among the more than 500 people hoping to snag one of 150 positions up for grabs.
A homemaker back in the job market after a divorce, Cormier is having trouble finding work to help pay the bills. She said she applied for 35 jobs in two months and failed to get a single one of them.
Cormier’s high school diploma and smattering of college education are not propelling her far.
“It is very frustrating ... I don’t have enough education,” Cormier said, a problem she blames on Louisiana’s public school system.
As he seeks re-election on Oct. 22, Gov. Bobby Jindal is touting job creation as his greatest achievement during his first term.
His administration says it created more than 45,000 new direct and indirect jobs since the governor took office in January 2008. Only half of those new jobs actually are employing people now. The Jindal administration said the rest are supposed to materialize in the future.
“The best business climate. The best opportunities to get a great paying job to raise your family. We did it in Louisiana,” Jindal proclaims in one election advertisement.
State Sen. Francis Thompson, who represents one of the poorest areas of the state, applauds the governor for helping convince ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston Inc. to build a sweet potato product processing plant in Richland Parish. The venture is expected to create hundreds of new jobs.
“In my opinion, he has been more focused on economic development than probably any governor that I have served under,” said Thompson, D-Delhi, and one of the longest-serving legislators.
The governor’s efforts to advance a chronically depressed state coincided with the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. Jindal may have created jobs, but unemployment also nearly doubled, the labor force shrunk and the state’s poverty rate ranks second-highest in the nation.
Workers in Shreveport and the New Orleans area are bracing for the loss of jobs that, in some cases, have been the bread and butter of generations of Louisiana families. Thousands will be out of work when Avondale Shipyard closes in 2013. The GM plant in Shreveport once employed 3,000. Now down to 800 workers, the plant’s assembly line will shut down completely next year.
“Surely we would support anything the governor does to create jobs. But I can tell you my No. 1 concern right now is the loss of jobs,” said Louis Reine, president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, a union that traditionally supports Democratic candidates.
Reine questioned what the governor has done to prevent job losses at Avondale and GM.
Still others, like Cormier, are frustrated that they are out of work despite months of searching for a job.
During the last governor’s race, health care and education emerged as the biggest issues. The state was flush with cash after the economic boom that followed hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Four years later, with the nation reeling from a recession, the only issue seems to be jobs in a race that Jindal is likely to win outright.
Two of the nine candidates running against the governor lack a job. Another struggled with the twists and turns of the economy. Yet another decided to run after her husband lost his teaching job.
None of the candidates opposing the governor’s re-election bid is well known or well financed. None is likely to face off with him in a televised debate.
“His record is very poor,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate “Niki Bird” Papazoglakis said of the governor.
She complained that the unemployment rate nearly doubled in four years and that the poverty level spiked.
Jindal and his aides do not dispute the statistics.
They acknowledge that unemployment rose from 3.8 percent in January 2008 to 7.6 percent in July 2011.
“We’re not immune from the national economy,” state Department of Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said.
Jindal said the state’s unemployment rate continues to be below the national unemployment rate, which was 9.1 percent in July 2011. He said creating jobs is the best antidote to poverty.
“We made a great start on turning Louisiana around,” the governor said.
Jindal took a swipe at past governors, whom he said merely talked about poverty by holding summits. He said he is busy bringing in jobs.
Moret said 40 to 50 percent of the more than 45,000 jobs touted by the Jindal administration are actually employing people. The remaining percentage, he said, are scheduled to come
online in the future.
He said the figure of 45,000 jobs also is a mix of direct and indirect jobs.
The new jobs include:
???Up to 1,250 positions created through Nucor Corp.’s plans to build a $3.4 billion steel mill in sugarcane fields south of the Sunshine Bridge. The project will be built in phases over a number of years.
???Edison Chouest LaShip shipyard in Houma, which could generate 1,000 jobs in addition to retaining 500 positions.
???The creation of 75 jobs through a Lighthouse for the Blind project in Baton Rouge that will employ the visually impaired to make paper cups.
Moret said he is conservative in his job creation estimates because some positions will fail to materialize. He said the more than 45,000 jobs touted by the governor represents 80 percent of the jobs the administration hopes to create.
The Jindal administration granted roughly $425 million in incentives to attract more than 57,000 expected jobs. Some of the incentives were cash. Other incentives included reimbursement for the cost of infrastructure, training and equipment.
The governor launched Louisiana FastStart to help businesses train new employees in exchange for creating a minimum number of jobs. The program is credited with attracting new businesses to the state and convincing existing ones to expand.
Pipe manufacturer Stupp Corporation of Baton Rouge recently built a spiral mill that creates large-diameter gas line pipe.
The company worked with FastStart to train welders, educate supervisors on leadership skills and recruit employees. More than 200 workers received training through FastStart, including instruction on welding and safety.
Ed Scram, president and CEO of Stupp, said the program was especially beneficial to a relatively small company that was doubling in size.
With the state’s help, the company more quickly trained supervisors, educated workers on the dangers of working with machinery and recruited employees, said Dianne D. Sykora, vice president of human resources and organization development for Stupp.
“It would’ve taken me years to do it by myself,” she said.
Moret said FastStart is needed, in part, because Louisiana is a poor state. He said potential employers look at the state’s poverty rate and question whether a high-quality workforce can be obtained.
He said the state has to do more than offer cash incentives.
“Incentives matter, but there’s always going to be two to three states just as aggressive in their offerings,” Moret said.
He said the state’s unemployment rate is what it is partly because people are not pursuing training through the community and technical colleges.
Jindal said he created FastStart to build a skilled workforce.
Scram said he is pleased with the work the Jindal administration is doing.
“I’m pretty high on those guys,” he said.
Still looming are the loss of nearly 6,000 jobs at Avondale and GM.
Those jobs are victims of a cutback in the Navy’s shipbuilding program and the downturn in the automotive industry.
“I really haven’t seen the governor doing anything to keep Avondale here,” Reine said.
Moret said the administration is doing what it can to save 1,500 to 3,000 jobs at Avondale by securing a federal grant and by offering to help retool the site. He said no single employer is likely to maintain the current workforce level in today’s economic climate.
He said he stays in touch with GM to see what can be done with the Shreveport facility.
“Without question, by far the most challenging aspect of being secretary of economic development over four years is I literally started two weeks after the deepest national recession,” Moret said.