At 40 years old, licensed practical nurse and grandmother Nikobianne Williams went back to school at South Louisiana Community College in 2017 to fulfill her dream and become a registered nurse.

With her children grown, Williams said she had no excuse not to try to better herself. She said getting her degree and becoming a registered nurse would not only give her more confidence and a higher income, but also that being a nurse is her passion and she wanted to go further and help more people.

With just a year left in her associate's degree plan, Williams plans to bridge to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to earn a bachelor's degree. 

"It's a challenge, but I'm driven, I'm focused, and I'm ready," Williams said. "I want to make sure my income matches the increase of the cost of living. I hope more older students attend SLCC to get their degree. I enjoy coming here. I like the atmosphere, and everyone's willing to help and assist."

People across Acadiana are finding their way back to school, whether it's to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree or a trade certification. The need for a more educated and skilled workforce in south Louisiana has been a driving factor behind One Acadiana's 55 By 25 initiative, which seeks to get 55% of adults in the region to have a degree or certification by 2025.

"In order to build a great community, we need sustainable jobs that can sustain families for our workers and businesses need to have the educated workforce they need to operate and thrive," said Anna Osland, manager of workforce and policy initiatives at One Acadiana. "That's a big part of why One Acadiana is involved in this." 

Nationwide, just 39.2% of adults 25 and older have an associate's degree or better. In Acadiana, that number drops to around 25%, according to state and Census data, making the task of getting another 30% of working adults with a degree or certification in six years a worthwhile goal, according to officials.

While 37.4% of adults ages 25 and older in Lafayette Parish have a degree, other Acadiana parishes trail significantly. Jeff Davis Parish is atop the remaining eight Acadiana parishes at 20.9%, while St. Mary Parish is at the bottom at 15.3%.

The focus is on early childhood education, high school graduation and obtaining either a degree or certification. It includes working with UL, SLCC and LSU-Eunice to improve the system for students to transfer from community college to a four-year university.

"I think the key thing is that the effort has the relationship with UL," SLCC Chancellor Natalie Harder said. "We both have students who started but didn't finish, and we have to work together and figure out how to loop them back in so they do finish.

"There is no more important issue than raising education attainment. Everything that is a poor social indicator is opposed to educational attainment. Almost 75% of all students who went back to school this year are below the poverty line."

SLCC has introduced programs to allow students to earn credit while in high school and will open a carpentry program at its St. Martinville campus on Sept. 16. Others will include technology, allied health and nursing, electrical, masonry and plumbing.

"We really need all of these categories and more skilled workers with certifications," said Kerry Duet, president of the Master's Guild of Acadiana, a network of master craftsmen in southwest Louisiana. "The vast majority of our skilled workforce is 50 and up. Of my 11 crews, over half of them are headed up by people over 50. I'm looking at losing most of my skilled leads and many of my workers over the next 10 years."

The group formed after the 2016 flood by a group of skilled labor contractors and suppliers to consolidate relief efforts. Even with the current workforce of skilled workers in Acadiana, there hasn't been enough people to repair homes and buildings damaged by the flood, Duet said.

If another disaster were to strike 10 years from now, the recovery would take longer.

"If we start now, we still won't be able to make up the losses we're about to see when our leads retire after 60," Duet said. "It takes 20 years to develop those skills, but we can't just give up. No matter what, we'll be behind. But if we do nothing, we're going to have a serious problem with development and disaster recovery."

This lack of skilled workers is also driving up labor prices and costs, which trickle down to higher housing prices, which make it not as profitable for people to build, which will lead to a slow down in growth in Acadiana, according to Duet. She said she hopes the new training and apprenticeship programs spark a viral growth and once those first round of new workers are trained up, they'll take on apprentices with the programs to help train the next generation of skilled workers.

Local businesses are also getting behind the 55 by 25 efforts. Fine jewelry manufacturer Stuller has started working with One Acadiana and the Louisiana Workforce Commission to create a certified apprenticeship program to create an accreditation process for its employees.

"We're starting with the stone setters and will be expanding," said Jimmy Bernard, executive director of manufacturing at Stuller. "We have about 35 people that can be in the program and an additional 100 to 200 across our entire manufacturing operations once we get the process started. There's no formal apprenticeship for stone setting, so we're working to create one." 

The process will help the employee getting a state-recognized trade accreditation and helps Stuller by having an accredited workforce that it can market, he said. It also helps the state by having more accredited and educated citizens.

"Education is not only the gatekeeper for socio-economic mobility but also reduces the cost to the state from having so many of our citizens be considered working poor," Harder said. "These kinds of credentials lead to high-paying, high-demand jobs. We couldn't be more proud of these efforts to make Acadiana's workforce more educated and more prosperous."

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Email Dan Boudreaux at dboudreaux@theadvocate.com.