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The IBM Services Center in Baton Rouge is expanding referral bonuses, holding job fairs and taking other measures to meet an 800-job hiring target by next summer that is outlined in an incentive agreement with the state.

IBM is in the midst of a recruitment push for its high-profile Baton Rouge client innovation center to meet a 800-job hiring goal by next summer and avoid paying penalties to the state.

The firm is increasing employee referral incentives and holding a series of job fairs and other events to bolster hiring efforts, roughly eight months ahead of its hiring deadline.

And the tech giant is getting an assist from Louisiana Economic Development, which has lent its FastStart workforce development program to help IBM hire the workers it promised under a revised agreement with the Gov. John Bel Edwards administration.

“IBM is working in partnership with state and local leaders in Baton Rouge to meet our employment targets,” IBM spokeswoman Sarah Minkel said, citing several initiatives the company is undertaking, like employee referral bonuses, job fairs and partnerships with local universities.

If IBM fails to meet its hiring promises again, it will have to pay back $10,000 for each job it falls short.

On Saturday, IBM will hold a career fair at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, an event supported by the state-funded FastStart program. IBM called the event part of a “regular cadence” of career fairs and community engagement events it is holding.

The highly-touted FastStart program offers free recruitment and training services to certain companies that promise to hire at least 15 manufacturing jobs or 50 service-related jobs. LED FastStart also produced a video for IBM, released in August, that was apparently aimed at attracting potential employees.

FastStart services are part of an incentive package the state and city-parish offered IBM totaling nearly $147 million over 17 years.

The latest information provided to LED FastStart shows IBM currently has at least 80 openings for its Baton Rouge center, LED spokesman Ron Thibodeaux said, and the firm is expected to do additional recruitment activities in the coming months.

Between July 1 of this year and June 30, 2019, IBM must hire the “full-time equivalent” of 225 workers, at an average of $46,000 a year, to meet hiring targets set by the state. The job calculation divides the company's total Baton Rouge payroll by $46,000 to come up with the job number. 

The Baton Rouge IBM project, announced in 2013 under the former Gov. Bobby Jindal administration, was touted as a game-changer that would kick-start the state's tech economy. It was originally set to bring 800 jobs by last year. IBM fell well short of that goal, employing 572, including some who were allowed to be stationed in Monroe.

Observers have cited IBM’s low pay for workers here and fierce competition for skilled tech workers to explain the shortfall. IBM has also fallen short at other regional centers in Iowa and Missouri after receiving millions in incentives.

The Edwards administration revised the deal to keep IBM in Baton Rouge longer and give it more time — until 2019 — to meet its 800-job goal. The company was not allowed to include Monroe workers in its 2018 count, and it narrowly met its hiring target for the year. Meanwhile, news outlets in other areas of the country have reported layoffs at various IBM locations this year.

Minkel said IBM has expanded incentives to employees who refer people to the company in Baton Rouge, and has seen an uptick in referrals. The company also is focused on what IBM calls “new collar” jobs, which are in fast-growing fields but often don’t require college degrees. IBM runs a new collar internship program in Baton Rouge.

IBM posted a long list of openings for its Nov. 10 hiring event at Delgado. The firm is hiring in more than 30 fields, including enterprise applications management, application development, data science and more. Recruits are coming from a range of backgrounds, Minkel added, a mix of early-career professionals and expected hires.

The company is hiring locally, she added, but is also expanding programs to attract people from out of state.

The firm also continues to work with universities to continually update curriculum, Minkel said. LSU has updated its computer science curriculum since the state first struck the IBM deal in 2013. The state dedicated $14 million to expanding higher education programs to ensure a steady stream of workers for IBM.

“LED and Louisiana’s higher education community are committed to providing IBM with a world-class IT workforce,” LED FastStart Executive Director Paul Helton said in a statement. “IBM has partnered with LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College to create and implement programs of study for both IBM’s needs and those of the greater IT industry across Louisiana.”

At the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s monthly lunch in October, IBM executive Charles Masters said the Baton Rouge center was bringing in 10 to 15 new hires “every couple weeks.” The Baton Rouge center has around 300 clients, he said.

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.