Two years ago, a state task force estimated Louisiana would need 86,300 new skilled craft workers in 2016 to build the $60 billion worth of new industrial plants and expansions that had been announced.
There was no way the state could provide all the new experienced workers, mainly because it takes two years of training and experience to turn an entry-level helper into a journeyman, the Craft Workforce Development Task Force found. Louisiana would have to recruit. But the task force felt confident the state’s community colleges, private training facilities and employers could recruit and train enough construction and entry-level craft workers.
Two years in, it’s unclear how many workers have been trained. Private training facilities and employers aren’t required to share those numbers with the state. But officials with the state’s community colleges, union training centers and industry say the combined efforts have made a big dent.
David Helveston, vice president for Workforce, Career and Technical Education with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said the system has done everything it can with the resources available to meet the demand.
“I don’t know that we will ever be able to fully meet industry’s needs, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job,” Helveston said.
LCTCS had 4,644 National Center for Construction Education and Research training-level completions — an important industry certification — during the 2014-15 school year, Helveston said. That’s roughly 145 percent more certifications for electricians, carpenters, welders, pipefitters and skilled crafts people than in the 2013 school year.
In addition, the state’s community colleges also implemented noncredit, compressed training courses. The 16-week programs take place five days a week, eight hours a day, and even on nights and weekends. LCTCS had 3,500 completions of compressed training courses for the 2014-15 school year, 30 percent more than the previous school year.
There is some overlap among the NCCER and compressed training courses, so the total number of people trained may be less than the combined numbers, Helveston said. But it’s close.
Those newly trained workers, and more, will be needed in the coming years. Economist Loren Scott said $62.3 billion worth of projects are under construction or have been completed, but $83.1 billion worth of expansions and new plants remain in the design and permitting stages.
Helveston said the huge spike predicted for 2016 will be more of a plateau that will stretch out over the next two to five years.
The sustained demand will help the state train the workers needed.
Jake Thibodeaux, a process technology student at Baton Rouge Community College, plans to be one of them. Thibodeaux worked for a scaffolding company before a back injury cost him his job. While recovering, Thibodeaux began studying process technology.
“I saw what (plant) operators were doing, and I saw how much money they were making,” Thibodeaux said. “I wanted to be them.”
Ryan Compagna, also a process technology student at BRCC, works 30 hours a week as a butcher — his hours were recently cut from 40 — and is in his last semester at the school. He started out in engineering but realized that wasn’t quite his calling and made the switch.
“My dad’s an operator at a plant. I thought I would pursue PTech,” Compagna said.
It’s tough working and going to school, Compagna said. But when Compagna, who graduates in December, starts working as a process technologist, the pay will be much better than what a butcher makes.
Process technology instructor Earl Millard said process technology work isn’t limited to the petrochemical industry. The food, agribusiness, distribution, pharmaceuticals, transportation and water treatment industries also need process technology workers.
The profession also doesn’t involve working 9 to 5, Millard said. There are night and weekend shifts. Sometimes a worker has to go in unexpectedly, which can place a strain on a family.
But the jobs do pay well. According to compensation analysts PayScale.com, the average process technologist earns $70,663 per year.
The opportunity to earn that kind of money has drawn underemployed people to compressed training, Helveston said.
“They know what’s going on. They say, ‘All right, I need to get back, get that next certification, get onto one of those plant sites so I can find my way to the middle class,’ ” Helveston said.
LCTCS spokesman Quintin Taylor said that when Lake Charles’ Sowela Technical Community College realized it was getting “a huge number” of applications from people who already had college degrees, the school instituted a special compressed-training program. The first 18-week session featured training six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day. Eighteen people started, and all 18 finished.
The classes are drawing teachers, attorneys and in some cases people with Ph.D.s, Taylor said. The Sowela program cost about $200,000, and its success led LCTCS to implement similar training at four other locations.
The system projects 185 students will complete that compressed program alone, he said.
Al Bargas, president of the Pelican chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said enrollment at ABC’s two Baton Rouge-area campuses has grown 18 percent since 2013 to 4,596 people. ABC’s collaborations with local high schools through satellite programs have also greatly expanded.
“We’ve got like 12 or so in the Lake Charles or southwest Louisiana area, probably six to eight in Baton Rouge area,” Bargas said.
“Louisiana Construction Education Foundation gave us money to do some projects out in Livingston Parish, build some labs and whatnot.”
As a result of the collaborations, ABC has been able to offer accelerated, daytime training on its campuses to high school juniors and seniors, Bargas said. The response has been so strong that ABC now offers morning and afternoon sessions.
“Things are looking good,” Bargas said.
Enrollment at ABC’s New Orleans chapter has jumped 44 percent since 2013 to 849 students.
The New Orleans chapter expanded its St. Rose campus in anticipation of the demand, adding a 7,200-square-foot welding facility and 10,500 square feet of classroom and lab space.
Claire Nettles, vice president of workforce development for ABC’s New Orleans chapter, said the sustained construction period helps, but it doesn’t mean the demand goes away.
“That’s one reason we expanded, because people keep telling us, ‘We still need, we still need, we still need,’ ” Nettles said.
ABC is doing its best to fill that need across the state, she said.
Meanwhile, employers also are expanding and adding to their training capacity, said Connie Fabré, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industrial Alliance.
In the Baton Rouge area alone, Cajun Industries LLC, MMR Group and Turner Industries have invested in new facilities.
The Brock Group recently opened a Baton Rouge hiring center, which evaluates more than 600 applicants a week, spokesman Daryl Johnson said. The company has a 35,000-square-foot office and warehouse in Geismar with a 3-acre scaffold yard.
Brock plans to open a New Orleans-area hiring center during the first quarter of 2016 and also plans to expand its Sulphur and Monroe facilities, Johnson said. The company expects to add 2,000 craft workers across the country, and most of those will be added along the Gulf Coast.
Scott said so far companies building the massive construction projects have been able to meet their hiring quotas, although lots of the workers have come from out of state.
The Craft Workforce Development Task Force report had estimated that 70 percent of the workforce on any of the announced projects would have to be journeymen, which meant there would be an in-state shortage.
“I think the real challenge is going to come really next year or the year after that,” said Scott. “If you look at what’s going on in Lake Charles, there’s just a huge increase.”
The Lake Area Industrial Alliance, the Lake Charles counterpart to the Baton Rouge group, expects the need for craft workers will jump from July’s 9,500 people to 16,500 by April.
“I mean, that’s a huge increase. Problems might be looming in the future,” Scott said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.