Education systems must better match programs to La. workforce needs, panel members urge

By Ken Stickney, The Acadiana Advocate

Leading educators promoted a mission of educating Louisiana people, including that hard-pressed portion of the population with a high school degree or less, for success in the workforce.

Kim Hunter Reed, commissioner of higher education; Holly Boffy, who represents District 7 of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System spoke pointedly of the gap that rests between the state’s people and the need for credentialed employees in the workforce.

The panel was part of Reset Louisiana’s Future, a one-day program presented by the Public Affairs Research Council, CABL and the Committee of 100 for Economic Development. The program was the initial public program offered by the Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Reed said the state must invest in a system redesign, one that matches the needs of the vast, undereducated population with the benefits education can provide.

“Louisiana must solve the education gap to meet the workforce challenge,” she said, referring to that challenge as a “big-vision work.”

“What if every house had a degree or credential?” Sullivan asked. That would provide the solution to the state’s financial problems.

The state’s Board of Regents has set a goal of 60 percent of the population holding credentials for the “knowledge-based economy” by 2030. An outside study suggested 56 percent of Louisiana’s 2.42 million work-capable people should be credentialed now, such that they could qualify for jobs that pay living wages or better. But Barry Erwin, president and CEO of the Council for a Better Louisiana, panel moderator, said only 44 percent of the workforce holds such credentials.

Sullivan said that LCTCS is in hot pursuit of people ages 21-27 who have missed opportunities to gain workforce credentials and need another chance.

“Adults in Louisiana face daunting circumstances,” he said. “With a high school diploma or less, they work two or three part-time jobs with no benefits.”

He said LCTCS has shifted in the past two decades from degrees to providing the chance for people to earn credentials that will help them land and keep meaningful jobs. That, he said, positions them to become “contributors,” not “takers” in the state’s social and economic systems.

Boffy said K-12 education pointed to diplomas with workforce value as early in this decade; the first class graduated 2 percent of its students poised for work. Since then, she said, some quarter of all K-12 students have become workforce ready by graduation.

But, she said, the conversation must shift: Parents need to promote not just four-year education but also two-year degrees or other credentials that will help their sons and daughters enter the workforce with the chance to succeed.

“The reality needs to match the message,” she said. “What are our true needs? Looking at data, not all students need a four-year degree.”

Reed said it’s important that school systems match aptitudes of students to opportunities in employment. She suggested an “intentional design” that exposes young people to workforce opportunities early in their educations – not at the end.

Sullivan touted efforts to reclaim the potential of workers who need continuing education. Educational opportunities, he said, can be imperiled for non-traditional students by simple, unexpected financial hits — car problems or other life challenges. He recommended more help for students who live on the financial edge.

He said those at-risk learners need to know that enrolling in classes can gain them entry to excellent employers. For example, he said, students at SOWELA in Southwest Louisiana have an edge in getting jobs at premier employers like Sasol near Lake Charles. Those non-traditional learners also need to see success stories — people like them who’ve earned credentials and are holding good jobs.

Boffy said students in K-12 can gain confidence by enrolling in courses that point them toward successful careers. They can develop confidence on their high school campuses by taking relevant courses.

She said K-12’s goal by 2025 is that all students will be exposed to dual-enrollment courses that will point to workforce success.


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