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Waguespack, LABI drive change for Louisiana business, industry

February 26, 2015

Growing up in South Louisiana and feeling firsthand the effects of the crash of the mid-’80s awakened a drive in Stephen Waguespack to make a positive difference any way he can in the state he loves. “That period had a profound impact on my life by showing me the importance of strong leadership and smart policies to help Louisiana reach its unlimited potential as the best place in the country to work and raise a family,” he explained.

After working in the governor’s office, Waguespack decided to step down to focus on his family and look for that next opportunity to help drive change in Louisiana. In previous positions throughout his career, he worked closely with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) — an organization founded 40 years ago upon a similar passion for the state and the desire to make a difference.

“When my predecessor retired as president of LABI in 2012, I was privileged to be offered the opportunity to lead this organization, and I jumped at that chance,” Waguespack said. “No other organization has been more critical to our state’s success for the past four decades than LABI.”

BIC Magazine recently sat down with Waguespack to learn more about LABI and some of the state’s most pressing workforce issues.

BIC: What is LABI’s relation to the energy industry?

WAGUESPACK: With more than 80 percent of the nation’s oil rigs located on Louisiana’s outer continental shelf, Louisiana has long been called “The Energy State.” The oil and gas industry provides state and local governments billions of dollars and creates thousands upon thousands of jobs. In fact, six of the 20 largest capital investments in the country are tied to oil and gas; the largest, from the South American company Sasol, is located in western Louisiana and involves a $10 billion gas-to-liquids plant. The second largest, a liquid natural gas plant, is also located in the state.

Additionally, LABI works with hundreds of associations across the nation to support pro-growth legislation to move Louisiana’s energy industry forward.

Most recently during the 2014 legislative session, LABI, along with its coalition partners, advanced significant legal reforms such as instilling transparency and accountability in lawsuits by the state attorney general, blocking a rogue lawsuit by a local levee board against energy employers that would jeopardize jobs and investment, preventing the legitimization of consumer lawsuit lending and opposing legacy lawsuits that needlessly hold back property remediation.

This collaborative effort had an immediate impact on one national ranking, dropping Louisiana from No. 2 on the Judicial Hellholes list to No. 7, and led to national recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which recently named LABI as the Outstanding Organization of the Year.

LABI works closely in partnership with numerous national, state and local industry coalition partners, including the National Manufacturing Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, numerous local chambers of commerce, Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, Louisiana Chemical Association and America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

BIC: What is the biggest issue facing business in Louisiana?

WAGUESPACK: The biggest issue facing business in Louisiana is its workforce — a workforce lacking, both by the numbers and in quality. The disconnect between worker need and availability is due mostly to a lack of applicants with technical skills and so-called “soft skills” that include getting to work on time, dressing appropriately and being respectful.

It all starts with improving primary and secondary education. In spite of years of intense state focus and billions of tax dollars, Louisiana student performance remains at the bottom on most national indicators, coming in at 48th or 50th in almost every ranking. Research shows more than half of the jobs in Louisiana require some post-secondary education, including technical training, yet only a quarter of K-12 students will achieve a two-year or four-year degree, leaving the state with a sizable skills gap.

To shift education and training in line with industry’s pressing needs, LABI partnered with the state Department of Education’s JumpStart program bringing school districts, colleges and business and industries together for career-oriented classes and experience. 

A great example of this private-public partnership is Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). ABC started offering daytime compressed training classes, similar to those offered by the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, to help increase the state’s supply of skilled craft workers. In fact, the Ascension Parish School System now sends students to ABC’s welding facility in Baton Rouge for their afternoon training.

Soft skills are equally as important as technical skills in Louisiana’s quest to become a regional economic powerhouse. Soft skills cover a lot of territory, but the concept includes showing up to work on time, being able to pass a drug test, dressing in an appropriate manner for the workplace, and being able to work cooperatively and effectively with coworkers, supervisors and customers.

The soft skills of many workers are but a facet of a bigger problem of having too few workers trained to handle what will be an explosion of job opportunities in the coming years. The state and the business community must be prepared for whatever the future brings. If challenges such as a lack of skilled workers are left unaddressed, the window of opportunity could close and the potential for investment and growth could simply waste away.

BIC: With that in mind and the pressures of the global economy on Louisiana, how can the state compete?

WAGUESPACK: Despite many anti-business and anti-growth policies coming from Washington and the lingering effects of the national recession, all of the data points to the fact Louisiana is turning a corner. Overall, in 2011, Louisiana increased capital investment more than any other state. Louisiana ranks No. 1 in export growth and intensity, leads the nation in manufacturing growth and its per capita income growth ranked No. 2 in the nation last year.

In order for Louisiana to avoid the proverbial “bust” that has followed our previous “boom” periods and be competitive on the national and global stages, it needs to begin encouraging policy that leads to the same kind of “cruise control” growth state apparent in Texas, Florida, New York and California.

To achieve this sustainable growth, we must stay strong on math and critical thinking skills in our K-12 education system to prepare our children for future jobs. We must improve the quality and relevance of technical training from high school through post-secondary entities and teach our kids the importance of showing up for work on time, hard work and drug-free living. These things are necessary to train children for the jobs of tomorrow. If we don’t do it, some other state will, and it will be their children who will benefit by the expectations of the New World economy.

BIC: With regard to national education reform and Louisiana’s implementation, how will/can the energy industry benefit from the initiatives?

WAGUESPACK: Louisiana is on the brink of an economic boom driven by businesses spanning the petrochemical, health care and digital media industries. These industries share a need for workers with skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In fact, according to Louisiana State University, our economy will need 69,000 additional STEM workers by 2019.

To meet this demand, a collaborative and concentrated effort must take place to get the credentials and training right to prepare students for their future careers. LABI supported the Workforce Investment for a Strong Economy initiative (WISE Fund), which passed last year. Since then, our members and other Louisiana companies have announced specific partnerships with higher education, providing private dollars for a state match to produce more graduates in growing fields.

Regions like New Orleans boast numerous highly innovative trade-related schools, such as Delgado Community College and Nunez Technical Institute, and two-year colleges with good track records of producing skilled workers in key areas such as nursing, machining and maintenance. The high pay of these industrial and other skilled jobs has attracted some students who are graduates of four-year colleges and whose degrees have not resulted in anything like the opportunities found in trade and technical fields.

This year, LABI will support efforts to recruit students into technical fields in high-demand fields, bring more relevant course offerings into middle and high schools through public-private partnerships, increase the use of TOPS Tech, and partner with community colleges and industry to get the credentials and training right.