Jindal retreads on worker training

Published 1:07 am Monday, April 21, 2008

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Construction companies short of skilled workers, hospitals needing more nurses, businesses complaining they can’t fined trained employees.

That was the backdrop of a 1997 labor department revamp touted by then-Gov. Mike Foster’s administration as a way to make it easier for the unemployed to get training and fill the thousands of vacant jobs in Louisiana. Business and labor groups hailed the move.

Eleven years later, the complaints remain unchanged and thousands of Louisianians remain too unskilled to fill the 100,000 estimated jobs in the state. Companies still say they can’t find enough skilled workers, and work force development still tops complaints for business leaders.

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So, a new governor is taking up the cause and proposing an overhaul of the Louisiana Department of Labor backed by business and labor leaders. Supporters of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan say the proposal will do what Foster’s restructuring didn’t: better align training programs and services to meet the needs of companies and get people into those vacant jobs.

“You can’t go to any industry right now — whether it’s a hospital, a restaurant, a mechanic shop, anywhere — and say, ‘Are you satisfied with the workers that you’re going to hustle and get?’ They’ll say no,” said Edward Rispone, chairman and CEO of Industrial Specialty Contractors LLC, a Baton Rouge-based electrical and instrumentation contracting company.

Jindal’s proposing to overhaul the labor department and make it the chief coordinator of worker training programs and services needed by those seeking work. The bill awaits debate on both the House and Senate floors.

Labor Secretary Tim Barfield, a Jindal appointee, said the revamp will integrate services by setting up regional centers were people looking for work can find out about available jobs in the area, skills training programs, educational offerings like literacy programs, child care services, transportation and other services they may need to get to work.

“The goal here is to have that ‘one-door’ principle,” Barfield said.

Barfield said by 2014, an estimated 55 percent of jobs in Louisiana will need some sort of training beyond a high school diploma. But right now, only 8 percent of high school graduates enter a two-year college or skills training program.

Under the bill, the labor department _ which would be called the Louisiana Workforce Commission _ would contract with regional boards that would plan and oversee the delivery of training services in their regions. The regional boards, called Workforce Investment Boards, would set up “business/career solution centers” as the entry points for businesses searching for workers and for people searching for employment.

“I don’t think, quite honestly, that Louisiana citizens are as lazy as some might suggest. I think they’re frustrated,” said Jim Patterson, with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, known as LABI. “They need to be able to walk into one building and walk out with all their needs addressed.”

The bill also would set up a policy council led by business leaders and including labor leaders that would recommend worker training program changes and would forecast the anticipated demand for jobs by occupation and industry.

But the 1997 restructuring pushed by Foster also was intended to consolidate job training programs spread through about a dozen state agencies and the trade schools and set up one-stop centers where people were supposed to be able to find out about training programs and businesses could advertise job openings. It also included an occupational forecasting component.

Labor leaders, business leaders and lawmakers said the Foster revamp was too narrowly focused on federally funded worker training programs and never brought enough coordination among state agencies to help the unemployed or underemployed understand all the services and education programs available.

“It just never really evolved into what it should have been,” said Bennett Soulier, now the undersecretary of the Department of Labor and in 1997 the director of a local workforce development board in Lafayette.

“I’m not sure they followed through in the Foster years,” said Sen. John Alario, D-Westwego, who was a state representative at the time of the last revamp. “It appears more people are working together on this and will do the follow-through.”

LABI crafted the major points of the Jindal legislation, looking at states that are considered to have successful work force development efforts, like Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Patterson said a true overhaul and improvement to workforce development involves coordination among state agencies, including the education, social services, health care, corrections and labor departments. Departments can’t operate as individual fiefdoms, and that level of coordination requires the pushing of the governor, he said.

Patterson and others said Jindal’s focus on work force development _ the governor has called it his hallmark issue of the regular legislative session _ along with a commitment from leaders across state agencies means the worker training revamp can work.

The restructuring will take years and will require continued monitoring and participation by state officials, business leaders, labor groups and service providers, supporters say.

Barfield acknowledged, “There’s a danger if people like me don’t do our job well _ it could just be a name change.”