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The Unseen Work Force 

The state is prepared to spend millions bringing marginalized workers into a new labor force " a tall order that will take more than money and legislation.

Some 750,000 adults in Louisiana are outside the traditional work force, meaning they're jobless but employable, at least on some level. It's a difficult demographic to nail down, but housewives, recently-released prisoners, high school dropouts, disabled citizens and the illiterate are among the unemployed masses. Many, however, are just between jobs. Of course, some just don't want to work or don't have the skills to land the jobs that are available. In part, these are the people targeted in Gov. Bobby Jindal's work force development package.

As usual, Jindal's top legislative officers are leading the charge. Senate President Joel Chaisson, a Destrehan Democrat, is sponsoring Senate Bill 612, which reorganizes the Department of Labor and renames it the Louisiana Workforce Commission. In many ways, its 84 pages of complex legalese represent the administrative side of the plan. GOP House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown is authoring the training component via House Bill 1018, which establishes the Workforce Education Fund.

Jindal also wants to commit another $18 million or so to get his training and education programs moving quickly. The state presently has more than 100,000 job vacancies that require skilled and trained labor. Moreover, Jindal's concept is built upon a series of alliances, from community groups to businesses and industries to community and technical colleges. If one of the pieces doesn't come to the table, Louisiana will find itself back at square one.

Jindal's plan shifts the way the soon-to-be-retooled Labor Department recruits workers — from reactive to proactive — and uses a multifaceted approach. "There are a lot of moving parts and pieces with this," Deputy Labor Secretary Tia Edwards says. "But the mission is simple. The department has long had an emphasis on taking on workers who come to us. Now we're going to where these workers are, in their communities, and we want to move them away from simple jobs and into career opportunities."

As in the past, the state's efforts begin on the regional level. Jindal's package calls for the creation of Workforce Investment Boards, or WIBs, that would plan training programs based on each region's needs. For instance, Baton Rouge's proposed board would focus on in-demand, high-growth areas such as construction, petrochemical and health care, possibly even state government, Edwards says. Each WIB also would open "business/career solution centers" for companies that need employees.

Digging deeper, the process truly begins at the community level. Career Builders of Louisiana, a Baton Rouge nonprofit, is among the state's community partners. Executive Director Terry Simmons says his organization is utilizing everything from church leaders and local nonprofits to guerilla marketing to reach out to this unseen work force. It's a smart strategy, he says, that former governors and department heads ignored.

The strategy assumes, probably correctly, that people outside the traditional work force don't turn to the state for employment help. It would never even cross their minds. "These are ways to communicate directly with this population, and these are very approachable entities, more so than a state agency," Simmons says. "They'll turn to their church before they turn to a bureaucracy."

Business and industry face a learning curve on this front as well, Simmons adds. He recalls a recent initiative with a Louisiana petrochemical plant where its top brass expressed an immediate need for low-level workers. In response, Career Builders printed hundreds of corrugated signs publicizing the jobs and salaries in bold text.

The plant's reaction was one of panic. "The executives there turned to us, clearly worried, and asked, "Won't we look desperate?' They just didn't get it," Simmons says. "I had to explain that they're not communicating with other plants. The truth is they were desperate, and they aren't used to being that way. They've never had to communicate with the work force out there that is available."

Under Jindal's master plan, once the WIBs and community-level groups bring in new workers, the training kicks in. Nonprofits such as Career Builders will offer some of it, but Louisiana's community and technical colleges will have primary responsibility for training this new labor force, especially since most high-demand jobs today require a two-year or technical degree. A diploma isn't always the objective; sometimes only training will be required.

Of the money Jindal has committed in this year's proposed budget for his work force development initiatives, about $10 million is dedicated to help the state's community and technical colleges ramp up their efforts. This part of the plan also dovetails into the rest of the process, which is where business and industry enter the picture. For instance, groups like the Louisiana Hospital Association, which alone has a need for 11,000 workers, will brief the colleges on what's needed.

KarenSue Zoeller, LHA's vice president of work force development, says business and industry are more motivated than ever to get involved because of Jindal's infusion of real money in this year's budget to get his initiatives moving immediately. "The coordination and collaborations happening between various state agencies and business and industry and the community really are unprecedented," she says. "All the stars are aligned. This is a really exciting time for work force development."

Still, there are challenges, like the segment of the unemployed population that simply doesn't want to work. Edwards says these are the folks that are "truly disenfranchised" — those who face cultural obstacles and see no alternatives. They are among the reasons Jindal has dedicated another $4.5 million for a dual-enrollment program that will introduce high school students to Louisiana's technical and community colleges. Not only will students be able to earn college credits while in high school, but they also will reduce the time they spend in the proverbial job pipeline.

Literacy rates are another major concern. According to state studies, more than a quarter of all Louisiana residents demonstrate skills in the lowest level of prose, document and quantitative proficiencies. Obviously, this portion of the targeted population cannot be thrown directly into training. That's why some of the training programs will need to include a remediation component and be retooled to handle the complexity of the problem, Simmons says.

Another worry: How will people in the program earn a living and pay for their education? Edwards says the state will work to secure Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid. Business and industry likewise are considering scholarships and putting up their own money to help out. "There's that much of a need right now," Edwards says.

While the challenges are numerous, Edwards says Jindal took care to mount a holistic approach that engages all stakeholders. By doing so, he hopes to avoid artificial bottlenecks and make changes swiftly when needed. Partnerships form the core of Jindal's mission, she adds. After years of trying the same thing in different ways, a collaborative effort seems the logical way to go. "Everyone has a role to play," she says, "and it will all come together in the end."


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