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The Brain Remain 

A new group seeks to plug the 'brain drain' of talented workers out of Louisiana.

Like many of their peers, businessman David Toso and attorney Francine Giugno were frustrated with New Orleans' lackluster job market. But instead of joining other high-quality employees in an exodus out of the area, they decided to stay in New Orleans and try to fix the problem.

"There is a lot of talk about young people outmigrating, but we are here," says Giugno. "We're the 'brain remain,' so to speak."

Toso and Giugno joined the Young Leadership Council, a community-service organization whose volunteers sponsor projects such as offering tutorials on how to use the Internet and helping low-income women prepare for job interviews.

The two formed a new committee of the YLC, the Economic Development Initiative (EDI). Its aim is to create more quality career opportunities in New Orleans, and Toso and Giugno are approaching it from two angles: trying to keep local businesses in the area, and trying to attract new commercial enterprises.

Their first step is to highlight the businesses that are already here. EDI plans to host Industry Appreciation Days to recognize the leaders and employees of Louisiana industries. Giugno and Toso believe companies that feel valued by the area will be more likely to set down permanent roots and expand.

"Retention is a big part of economic development -- taking a business that is already here, that has maybe hired 200 people, and helping them grow to hire 400 people," Toso says.

When established larger companies expand, the benefits spread to smaller local entrepreneurs, he explains. "There may be a little deli right next to the plant that just hired 200 more people," Toso says. "Now they're doing two times the business."

Another one of EDI's fledgling projects began when MetroVision asked EDI to review the Department of Labor's job site, www.laworks.net, from a young professional's perspective. EDI surveyed its committee members after they navigated the Web site, and came up with one overwhelming criticism: it lacks professional-level job postings.

Toso says the Web site highlights a common problem in Louisiana's job market: too few professional job postings on the Internet. It's one reason why the local practice of hiring by word of mouth is so prevalent, he says. EDI plans to meet with Secretary of Labor Garey Forster to discuss the survey results.

Also in the works is "New Orleans First," a survey EDI is compiling for the CEOs of the top 100 businesses in New Orleans. Using the information collected from the analysis, EDI will act as a liaison between local businesses and groups such as MetroVision (the economic development arm of the Regional Chamber of Commerce), the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, the state Work Force Commission, and the Downtown Development District. Such organizations have the power to authorize funding, spearhead training programs, or lobby for legislation removing roadblocks to business expansion.

The goal, according to Toso, is to help local companies solve problems on levels great and small. "It could be something as simple as parking," he explains. "[A company] might not be able to afford to create new positions because that means they also have to create five new parking spots and that's $150 a month per person. And there might be a [cheaper] parking lot two blocks away that they didn't know about."

EDI also plans to share promotional booths with MetroVision at several New Orleans conventions, where it will educate visiting companies about local innovations in their fields.

At the conventions, EDI plans to spread the word about New Orleans' comparatively low business costs, tax breaks, the port as a convenient means of transporting products, and large pool of young talent from universities such as Tulane, Loyola, the University of New Orleans, Dillard and Xavier. According to Giugno, New Orleans can also offer state-funded assistance programs such as the Department of Labor's incumbent worker program, which helps businesses expand by providing training and education to workers.

MetroVision president Bill Hines, a member of Mayor-elect Ray Nagin's transition team, thinks EDI will be working closely with MetroVision to pinpoint issues that affect local industries, and predicts the group will be a pivotal resource to the new mayor.

"Right now economic development is the city's main mantra, and Nagin wants to overhaul city government to be technology-friendly. I think EDI could have an enormous role working with the new mayor's office on implementing new projects and reforms," Hines says. "It's a perfect time for a group like this to be coming on the scene."

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