If you think 2020 might be a banner year for Lafayette area jobs, temper your enthusiasm. That may be up for debate.

Loren C. Scott, professor emeritus in economics at LSU, forecast in a September presentation in Lafayette that the metro area — Acadia, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes — might prosper in the short term with 3,200 new jobs in 2020 and 4,000 new jobs in 2021. He said an improved rig count in the Gulf of Mexico, coupled with “solid performances” by seven big local companies, would keep the area on the plus side for Louisiana jobs. One of those companies, Waitr, has since experienced a rocky several months.

But Gary Wagner, Acadiana business economist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said recently that Scott’s autumn forecast may have been too rosy, including his outlook for oil and gas. Wagner sees stability in the number of jobs and “churn” within the job market.

“I don’t see anything on the horizon that would make the Gulf turn around,” Wagner said. U.S. producers are drilling for oil on land — for example, in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico — at costs much lower than they do off Louisiana’s shoreline. Even if oil prices rebounded, Wagner said, the U.S. is extracting 40% more energy with fewer people, he said.

What does that mean for jobs? Wagner said there are about half as many people employed in oil and gas here now than there were in 2013 when the industry was riding much higher oil prices. The rig count, creeping upward, hasn’t changed much in a decade.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Lafayette is in trouble for employment, Wagner said, only that energy is not the driving force in the local economy that it once was. Things are changing, he said.

Wagner listed health care and education as probable growth areas for jobs in 2020. Health care, he said, “is probably the lead horse pulling the cart.”

That jibes with Lafayette Economic Development Authority data, which suggests that among sought-after jobs, registered nurses and licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses all rank among “top 25 demand occupations” in Lafayette, with high wages and high demand.

Wagner suggested manufacturing, too, might rebound as it shifts away from energy-related work. LEDA data suggest a host of manufacturing-related jobs are among those that may show growth this year, including welders, cutters, solderers and brazers; maintenance and repairs; heavy and tractor-trailer drivers; mechanics and machinists.

Ryan LaGrange, manager of workforce development at LEDA, said there are some 40,000 health care workers in the eight-parish Lafayette region that he measures. Health care jobs, he said, may grow some 10% in the decade measured from 2016 to 2026. Retail and accommodations and food services rank No. 2 and 3 for workforce jobs by industry. Those come with modest pay. Manufacturing ranks at No. 4 and mining, generally oil and gas jobs, are at No. 6.

The LHC Group, SPC Health, Lafayette General Health and Acadian Ambulance — all health care companies — show strength in the local market.

LaGrange said manufacturers have been “pretty stable” over the past few years, even during the energy decline in the Gulf, because they have moved to new sectors in the economy, such as aviation or other industries that use metal products.

Part of the area’s strength for jobs, LaGrange said, lies within local education: UL, South Louisiana Community College and even K-12, all of which play roles in preparing Lafayette's workforce. He said the schools pay attention to the 10-year, long-term job prospects and plan educational and training offerings accordingly.

For example, he said, the university and SLCC, aware of the demands for nurses, have bolstered their preparation programs for those jobs. Two-year degree programs and short-term training programs at SLCC are preparing the workforce for positions in welding, process technology, scaffolding and more. Some of those skills were appropriate for the oil and gas industry but have become important in other areas, such as manufacturing and construction, as well.

LaGrange said Lafayette also has emerging industries, such as information technology. UL was a forerunner in computer training, but IT jobs were generally found within other businesses and industries.

After CGI announced in 2014 that it was coming to Lafayette, LaGrange said, it built a facility for 400 employees. Now it is adding 400 more jobs, including, he said, 100 new positions within the next year.

At a Feb. 11 job fair, the company said it would fill up to 160 jobs in Louisiana, including business analyst and reporting, database engineer, software engineer, operations support roles and developers and architects for languages and platforms.

LEDA also held a job fair for IT jobs at Perficient in downtown Lafayette.

Count Wagner among the cautious skeptics. He said the high-tech industry has been subsidized and has received tax credits, which might be driving job growth short term.

“What would growth look like if they weren’t subsidized?” he asked.

If oil and gas fortunes were reversed in the Gulf, LaGrange said, there’s still a skilled workforce here to serve the industry. Some are in manufacturing, he said. Some have gone for jobs in West Texas.

Gifford Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said there are new opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico. Growth, he said, might depend on factors beyond south Louisiana’s immediate control.

“The key is what your definition of a comeback is,” he said. High oil prices would help. So might a better legal climate. But he said the state may have reached a “new normal.”

“South Louisiana is too risky for a lot of investors,” he said of the business climate. “They can go anywhere else.”

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Wagner said there are about half as many people employed in oil and gas here now than there were in 2013 when the industry was riding much higher oil prices. 

energy is not the driving force in the local economy that it once was. Things are changing, he said.

Wagner listed health care and education as probable growth areas for jobs in 2020.

Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.