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Southwest Louisiana Higher Ed Community Ramps Up Workforce Development

Higher education institutions in Southwest Louisiana keep skilled talent flowing to industry

By Teree Caruthers on December 19, 2017

Lake Charles, LA
Lake Charles / Courtesy of SOWELA

Thanks to a boom in the petrochemical industry, the Southwest Louisiana region has seen an investment of announced or under construction projects that total more than $117 billion.

With the flood of investment comes an increased demand for skilled workers, and the region’s higher education and workforce development community is working diligently to ensure a steady pipeline of talent stays flowing.

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SOWELA Technical Community College

At the forefront of workforce development efforts is SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles. The college offers associate degrees, technical diplomas, and certificates in more than 20 program areas, from accounting technology to welding. SOWELA has spent the last several years preparing for job growth by adding programs and partnering with the business community to develop training programs that will help meet demand.

“A few years ago, we had 36 welding groups on this campus. We expanded that to 56. From that, we expanded to 70, and currently, we’re expanding to over 100. We have strategically looked at what we see coming, and we are putting in place programs to train as many people as we possibly can,” says William Mayo, director of workforce development for SOWELA. “When you look at [the economic growth,] you know that we need welders who will be out there building a lot of these different plants that are going in place. So, we’re working with [the] industry to compress training, to train structural welders to where they can go out there and meet the needs of the workforce.”

SOWELA has partnered with businesses, such as Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I), a global energy infrastructure company, and Sasol, an international integrated energy and chemical company, to develop specific training programs to meet the demand for construction workers.

CB&I, for example, has employees stationed on campus to work with staff and students to train in the latest welding technology. When Sasol decided to build its $11 billion ethylene and chemical derivatives complex in Lake Charles, it helped fund a $20 million training center on the SOWELA campus.

“When companies come to the table and say ‘I need’ and they come with their money, that shows that they are invested in what’s going on. And it helps us to train the workforce and get people ready for work,” Mayo says. “Everyone knows that there’s a need for employees, and they’re doing what they need to do to help make it happen. It’s a wonderful thing. Southwest Louisiana is a great place to be.”

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McNeese State University

For more than 75 years, Southwest Louisiana has also relied on McNeese State University to provide an educated and well-prepared workforce. With the current and anticipated job growth in the energy and technology fields, McNeese State in Lake Charles is prepared to provide science, engineering, math and computer science graduates who will be in high demand for these expanding industrial facilities. In addition, the university, which is also home to the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center (or SEED Center), is in a prime position to provide for the increased demand for graduates in business, health care, allied health services, education, agriculture and food science, criminal justice, marketing, recreation, tourism and entertainment that the economic and population growth will require.

The SEED Center houses the McNeese Student Innovation Center. McNeese State was only the second university in the country to offer a minor in innovation, which includes courses in areas such as creativity and commercialization. Students are using 3-D scanning and printing as well as technologies, such as Google Glass, to test prototypes and learn how to commercialize their raw ideas.

The university’s new president, Dr. Daryl Burckel, says McNeese has a responsibility to employers in the region and to the community of Southwest Louisiana to be innovative in meeting the workforce demands of local industries whenever possible. He’s made it a priority to increase enrollment to meet the growing demand for talent.

“I would hope that in a 5-year period that we have a vibrant student body,” Burckel told Lake Charles television station KPLC. “A larger student body and a large online presence where we’re attracting more students.”

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