The technology industry continues to grow in Lafayette despite recent struggles at Waitr, the restaurant delivery company that's had three rounds of layoffs in the past year.

The industry's growth was on display Tuesday afternoon when more than 300 people attended a job fair at CGI's office at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Research Park.

"We're always hiring," said Diane Potter, director of operations for CGI's Lafayette offices. "We're always looking. I can't say that there's a shortage of talent here necessarily, but we're always looking for it."

The Canadian information technology company held the event Tuesday with the hopes of finding qualified people for about 160 positions in Lafayette.

It's difficult to know how much tech talent could be leaving Acadiana, due, in part, to the recent layoffs at Waitr. However, there's hope among those who work closely with displaced workers and the companies that hope to hire them.

"In technology, there's definitely more demand than talent available," said Ryan LaGrange, manager of workforce development for the Lafayette Economic Development Authority. "Most of the tech individuals I probably haven't heard from because they're probably going to transition pretty quickly. They have people knocking on their door, calling them, friends who've transitioned and are saying 'We have a spot here.'"

CGI has been hiring almost continually since opening a Lafayette office in 2014, Potter said.

The company is committed to job growth through 2027 because of economic incentives, and it's currently ahead of its hiring schedule in Lafayette.

CGI employed about 400 people in Lafayette as of 2019, and the company is expected to hire another 400 people by the end of 2020, according to a report authored by two of the state's leading economists. 

In the 2020-21 Louisiana Economic Outlook, the economists named seven major players in Lafayette's economy outside of the energy sector. Two of those companies are in the technology sector.

One is CGI, and the other is Waitr.

Waitr has "created a bit of nervousness recently," the economists wrote in the September 2019 report, in which they called the company's outlook "muddy."

Although Waitr employed 350 people in software and tech positions in Lafayette at one point, it is unclear how many of those jobs are left after three rounds of layoffs. 

The economists also mentioned the digital technology consulting firm Perficient, which opened its downtown office in 2016, as a smaller player in Lafayette's economy. The company employed about 75 people in 2019 and announced plans to add an additional 70 people to its workforce in 2020.

Local and state leaders have targeted the technology industry in recent years through economic incentives in an attempt to further diversify Lafayette's oilfield-reliant economy.

"We target high wage and high demand occupations," LaGrange said. "I consider technology to be an emerging industry in Acadiana. We're still seeing growth — rapid growth — in that sector."

That's not likely going to change because of the recent layoffs at Waitr or because another tech company, Enquero, failed to create jobs in Lafayette as announced in 2014.

Lafayette is still on track to have a net gain of more than 900 jobs through CGI and Perficient by the end of 2020. Those jobs have an average annual economic impact of $205.2 million, according to a LEDA report.

LEDA and the Louisiana Workforce Commission have been trying to reach out to displaced Waitr employees through any means possible, including social media.

The state agency is mostly concern with helping displaced workers find new jobs as quickly as possible, and they do that through a rapid response team that assists individuals with updating resumes, job skills training, unemployment benefits and more.

The local agency is more concerned with connecting companies with the right employees through virtual and in-person job fairs.

Tuesday's job fair at CGI was already in the works when more layoffs hit Waitr on Jan. 27. The Lafayette-based company also laid off employees in July and November 2019.

Waitr has repeatedly declined to comment on layoffs.

"If we have no knowledge until after the layoffs, we have to pull people together," said André France, who coordinates the rapid response team for the LWC. "But we've done that in the past where we've held orientations offsite. We'll reach out through social media or advertise on radio or TV. We've had luck there sometimes and sometimes we haven't."

Sometimes, a company is required to give a 60-day notice of layoffs through the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. In those situations, LEDA and the LWC are able to connect and share opportunities with employees. LaGrange said almost every single worker affected by a layoff was placed at new company before the positions were eliminated.

Even companies that don't have to file a WARN notice will sometimes reach out to LEDA or LWC so their displaced employees will have an easier transition into another job. That makes it easier for LaGrange and France to keep skilled workers in Lafayette and Louisiana.

But it's more difficult when they're learning about layoffs through social media as they happen.

"With Waitr, because it's kind of happened in spurts, it's been harder to coordinate an event around or plan anything," LaGrange said. "Each round of layoffs, I've had individuals that I've connected with because somebody referred them. That's typically what's been happening. It's been through word-of-mouth referrals primarily."

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