Thanks in part to a projected $80 billion petrochemical industry expansion, Southwest Louisiana's economy is growing at a phenomenal rate, and its colleges and universities are working in overdrive to keep up with the industry's workforce demands. Fortunately, the region's higher education institutions have been preparing for this economic boom for years. SOWELA Technical College has spent the last two years working with petrochemical companies to identify their labor needs.
"We know that at the height of this build-out, we're going to employ approximately 35,000 skilled craftsmen in this region," says Joseph Fleishman, SOWELA's vice chancellor for economic and workforce development.
These in-demand jobs will include skilled welders, pipe fitters, machinists, millwrights and more, Fleishman says. In anticipation, SOWELA has invested in adding and expanding programs in machine and tool technology, millwright, welding, HVAC, process control and others needed to support emerging industry. The college's process control program has doubled from 400 to 800 students over the past three years, and its instrument tech program has grown from 300 to nearly 700 students.
"We saw this wave coming, we prepared ourselves, and we are ready," Fleishman says.
Joining SOWELA in filling industry workforce gaps are organizations such as the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the United Association Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and Service Tech, which is opening a school in Lake Charles to train plumbers and welders. In addition to training existing and new employees, ABC has set up 10 satellite campuses at area high schools, training students in welding, pipe-fitting, electrical, millwright, carpentry, scaffold building, instrumentation and more.
"Everything we do is based on what the industry wants," says Kirby Bruchhaus, director of education at ABC's Westlake facility.
"We meet with contractors and industry leaders to see what kind of training they're needing. Also our teachers are all from the industry, so they know what the industry wants."
McNeese State University also has been preparing for the influx of new jobs and is primed to provide the science, engineering, math and computer science graduates these expanding industrial facilities will need. The university's College of Engineering, for example, is one of the few four-year institutions with a model chemical plant featuring industrial-grade equipment, instrumentation and controls to train future engineers and current employees. University president Philip C. Williams says the technology boom will boost an already growing population, and the university and other institutions such as Delta School of Business and Technology are preparing to fill jobs in associated fields like health care, education and business.
"We are focused on preparing graduates to meet the challenges that a global economy will bring to the workplace," Williams says. "These graduates will possess the skills to adjust to the rapidly changing employment opportunities that technology will demand. They will be versatile, adaptable, creative and innovative."
Innovation is especially apparent at the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development (SEED) Center, a business incubator developed through collaboration between McNeese State, the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and the City of Lake Charles. Home to the McNeese Student Innovation Lab and Classroom, the SEED center offers courses in creativity, communication skills and commercialization. Students learn to use 3D scanning, printing and milling to refine ideas and create prototypes of new products. McNeese is only the second university in the nation to offer an innovation curriculum, and it places a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
"By 2018, one out of every 20 global jobs will be STEM-related," Williams says. "STEM curricula teach students how to approach problems in an analytical and logical way. At McNeese, STEM-based degree programs open up rewarding and challenging careers in forensic science, veterinary technology, game development, agriculture production, dietetics, radiology and so much more."