Great Jobs Race: Louisiana struggles to get dropouts back into economy

Photo provided by staff
Friday, February 21, 2014 - 11:15pm

Louisiana is expected to add hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next decade. That’s great news for anyone with a trade certification, or a degree in fields like engineering or nursing.

But there are 600,000 people in our state who never went to high school, but still want a good career.

David Richard is one of them. He left school before he graduated to help support his family.

"But now, since I have my own family, and I have my own things I need to do for myself, now it's time for me to take care of my own goals and accomplish what I need to," he said.

It used to be that a high school education was enough to land a high-paying job, but not any more.

"As recently as 1970, 75 percent of middle-class jobs could be achieved with no more than a high school diploma," stated Dr. Joe May, outgoing president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS), "meaning that companies could find the people they needed with simply that pool that graduated from high school. Today, that's dropped to well below 40 percent. And it's dropping every day because, what's happened, as companies have changed, as they've become more competitive, they've invested in technology. That technology requires a higher-level skill than they had in the past."

"The people who are in our state, who have struggled for one reason or another, we want to scoop them back up and get them into a great career here in Louisiana," explained Curt Eysink, Executive Director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

Like Richard, Shartavia Payne chose to go back to school.

"It's not really a tough decision," she claimed. "Especially when it affects you financially, so it's a situation where you can advance and make more money and you can take care of your family and your children."

WorkReady U is the state’s adult education division. Its goal is to help Richard, Payne, and the rest of the 600,000 undereducated members of the state's labor pool find a career.

"We have a tremendous amount of talent throughout Louisiana," said Sean Martin, WorkReady U's Executive Director. "And within these 600,000 Louisiana citizens that do not possess a high school equivalency, many of them are extremely intelligent; they're very dedicated; they're raising their families; they're working two, three jobs. But they've experienced life, and they did make a mistake: they dropped out of school. But that shouldn't be a life sentence."

WorkReady U is under the umbrella of the LCTCS. It partners with schools and nonprofits, including the Greater Baton Rouge Literacy Coalition, to provide equivalency training and job-readiness skills.

"These skills could be as simple as showing up to work on time or being able to answer the phone," Martin said. "But more importantly, they go deeper into work ethic and that kind of thing."

Richard and Payne are part of the Literacy Coalition’s Accelerated Career Education (ACE) program. Along with their equivalency, they are taking classes in industrial maintenance.

"We're really seeing that need to end the perception of the high school equivalency diploma being the end-all, be-all," said Debbie O'Connor, Executive Director of the Literacy Coalition. "Students come to us and they say they want it, they want that diploma. But usually, what they're really saying is they want to be able to get a better job, earn a better paycheck.

"And what we know, and what they're learning, is that that high school equivalency is not going to do that. It's what comes next, and what door is opened with that credential.”

The ACE program focuses on construction and nursing training, because those industries are projected to be in high demand over the next decade. It is a unique program in that it uses team-teaching: one teacher covers personal skills, while the other teaches technical skills.

"They don't just run you through subjects, they actually make sure you know what you know," Richard said.

"It's just like having a mother and father," Payne agreed. "The mother is just as important as the father, so they kind of mesh together."

"The thought is, if we put in this team-teaching model and we're bringing the students not just the basic skills that they need, but also that career training, we're shortening the time," O'Connor explained. "Their time is so precious. They're adults, they have competing priorities, we need to get in and we need to get it done. So when we have those two teachers working together, we're able to shorten that time a student spends in the classroom."

Many of the students in the ACE program, including Payne and Richard, had been out of school for ten years before enrolling. But by going back, getting their equivalency, and getting certified for a trade, they’ll be ready for the job growth coming our way.

"It's always good to have a job, but at one point in time in your life, you want to have a career," Richard said. "You know, some place that you're happy being at.”

"Opportunity is endless with this program," Payne said, "so why not take advantage?"

While there are 600,000 workers statewide who do not possess a high school equivalency, approximately 10,000 take the exam each year, and only 7,000 pass it.

"We're only serving a drop in the bucket, to be honest with you," O'Connor stated. "We would love to expand that number and reach more learners, and we can do that, of course, by building strong programs that draw people in, but also by reaching out to the community to build awareness and to garner more support for the services that we do provide."

For many potential students, the realities of their lives make going back to school impossible. But Richard sees a much different future for himself since he enrolled, earned his high school equivalency, and started industrial training.

"Basically, more clearer now," he said. "I know where I want to go, I have more set goals and I have everything wrote down. As I accomplish each goal, I cross them out on the paper. And basically, it's like nothing can stop me now."

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