Natchitoches, LA (KMSS) — Dr. Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, encouraged strategic planning and collaboration between higher education and business/industry to improve workforce development in Louisiana as she met with the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce and Northwestern State University administrators Wednesday. Woodley said jobs are available in Louisiana, but partnerships are crucial for the state to meet emerging growth sectors, keep graduates in-state and reach the state’s economic potential.
“There is a mismatch between what we are producing and what business and industry need,” Woodley said. “We have to be systematic about making those connections. We need to connect with industry in a more meaningful way.”
Woodley explained a three-prong initiative, C3 (College/Career/Competitiveness), that identifies priorities for building post-secondary students into a strong workforce. Strategies include identifying high priority academic programs, offering on-line or hybrid classes to meet the needs of students already working, promoting internships and out-of-class experience and encouraging program/workforce partnerships and student/employer connections. Attracting premium faculty, securing public and private partnerships and strategic alignment of funding are also factors.
“We need firm plans and recurring resources to face the challenges of higher education meeting business and industry needs,” Woodley said.
“Collaboration is key,” said Tony Davis, Chamber president and chief executive officer.
Woodley also toured Northwestern State’s Department of Engineering Technology and listened to discussion between NSU’s ET faculty and representatives from Alliance Compressors, International Paper and Weyerhaeuser about what the university and its community partners are doing to encourage focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers and informing students about career opportunities.
Ken Gardner, plant manager at Alliance in Natchitoches, said growth in his company requires a variety of skills from multicraft manufacturing to management.
“We have a lot of successful NSU grads,” said Gardner, a Northwestern alumnus, whose company is bringing manufacturing facilities back to the United State from Mexico and hiring engineers, team leaders and supervisors.
Judy Lann, human resource manager at International Paper’s Red River mill, said her company is facing a wall of retirees and will be in need of experienced workers to replace those leaving the workforce.
Almost 100 percent of Northwestern State’s engineering technology graduates leave the university with jobs, said ET coordinator Bobby Nowlin, but the program faces challenges in recruiting students with competent math skills. Because of that, Northwestern has for the last three years been Louisiana’s university affiliate for Project Lead the Way, an initiative to expose middle and high school students to STEM curricula and career options.
Woodley encouraged the university to maintain dialogue with area industries and be creative in producing graduates that meet job demands. Opportunities exist for the university to tailor curricula for stackable 2- and 4-year degrees that accommodate working students and offer classes that match industry needs where jobs for qualified graduates are waiting. Grants may be available to grow the program but partnerships and legislative funding will be crucial to recruiting and retaining top students and faculty in a climate in which rising tuition costs do not cover deep cuts in state funding to higher education over the last five years.
For more information on Northwestern State’s Department of Engineering Technology, visit engrtech.nsula.edu. For information on Project Lead the Way, visit engrtech.nsula.edu/project-lead-the-way. For information on the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce, visit natchitocheschamber.net.