COVER STORY: Sharpening the Focus
Photo courtesy LCTCS
C O V E R S T O R Y
Sharpening the Focus
New La. President Building on Predecessor’s Workforce Efforts
By Paul Bradley
When Monty Sullivan became the fourth president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System in late February, his arrival came at a pivotal moment for both the college system and the state.
Sullivan, formerly chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans, succeeded Joe May, whose sometimes controversial seven-year tenure was marked by rapid growth and roiling change as the 13-school system shed its technical school approach to training workers and transformed itself into a comprehensive higher education system.
Under May’s stewardship, LCTCS grew from 46,000 students to its current full-time enrollment of more than 70,000. Several of its colleges rank among the fastest-growing in the country.
It was May who last year was primarily responsible for pushing a bill through the state Legislature authorizing community and technical colleges to borrow more than $250 million for 28 campus construction projects around the state.
Supporters of the legislation said it addressed the needs of a college system long neglected by policymakers, in the process helping the state meet its workforce needs for decades to come. Critics contended it was an unprecedented end run around traditional funding mechanisms and came at the expense of the state’s four-year colleges.
Now, with May having departed to lead the Dallas Community College District, it’s up to Sullivan to realize the vision of creating new workforce training programs and aligning them with the needs of Louisiana business and industry as the state rebuilds its economy in the wake of the Great Recession.
“We’ve got plenty of work to be done,” Sullivan said. “We have an economy that is growing faster than nearly anywhere else in the country, which means our workforce needs are greater than ever.”
Sullivan is steeped in the state’s workforce development efforts. He previously served as executive vice president for the LCTCS, where he led efforts to target federal and state money to solve immediate workforce needs.
He’ll have plenty of support. In Louisiana, everyone from Gov. Bobby Jindal on down has placed the community college system at the center of efforts to improve the state’s economy through improved workforce development efforts. Jindal has described efforts to better tie the state’s educational training to its workforce needs as his main priority for the current legislative session.
“We need to link the needs of employers with our educational institutions,” Jindal told the Associated Press. “I think our big challenge this session is getting ready for this manufacturing expansion.”
Sullivan now occupies a job where expectations for community colleges are skyrocketing, even as the state’s higher education system struggles with $700 million in state budget cuts imposed over the past six years.
“It’s interesting to be in this position,” he said. “It really is the focus of the day. Everyone in the state is looking at us.”
“One thing we don’t do is whine about the lack of resources. Instead of talking about losing money, we’re focusing on meeting our market needs.”
Elsewhere around the country, governors and lawmakers are also placing new emphasis on meeting workforce development to speed an economic recovery that has been frustratingly slow, according to the Education Commission of the States.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley wants to create a Statewide Workforce Council of business and industry leaders to advise colleges on workforce needs. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal has called for a Governor’s High Demand Career Initiative to bring together education officials, industry leaders and economic development officials to identify workforce needs. In Idaho, Gov. C.L. Otter wants to improve a workforce grant program to better target individual businesses and industry sectors.
But no state is doing workforce development as aggressively as is Louisiana, and the state’s needs are acute. It economy growing and its education attainment rates are lagging.
According to the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, by 2018, 316,000 of the expected 634,000 job vacancies in Louisiana will require some kind of postsecondary credential.
Currently, 27.9 percent of the state’s working-age adults (25-64 years old) in Louisiana hold a two- or four-year college degree, well below the national average of 38.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But there is some reason for optimism, according to the Lumina Foundation. The foundation found that the attainment rate for young adults in Louisiana — those between the ages of 25 and 34 — is 30.8 percent, suggesting that growing numbers of young people are recognizing the importance of higher education.
Workforce development efforts in the state are well under way. From 2007 to 2012, Louisiana invested more than $250 million in new and modernized training facilities at community and technical colleges, according to the Louisiana Economic Development agency. Another $250 million will be invested under the law championed by May last year
In 2010, legislators passed a law intended to bolster partnerships between employers and community colleges. The law provided funding for colleges willing to establish workforce “centers of excellence” linked to their regional economies.
Baton Rouge Community College, for example, is planning a center that will focus on transportation and logistics; its home city is the ninth-largest port in the United States. Delgado Community College, in New Orleans, is home to a culinary arts and hospitality center of excellence.
Under the law, before a college embarks on developing a center, it must secure at least a 20 percent funding match from a partnering private business. Unlike other states, where workforce development initiatives often are ad hoc, the partnership requirement in Louisiana is enshrined in law.
“We saw a need to have it written in law to have educators partner with industry,” Sullivan said. “It’s the most important relationship our colleges have. It helps us. It ensures our students are working on state-of-the-art equipment. And our industry partners become advocates for the colleges.”
The most recent example of this approach can be found at Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma, La., which earlier this month opened the Deepwater Center for Workforce Excellence, built in collaboration with BP America Inc. The center is housed in the BP Integrated Petroleum Technologies building, an $8 million, 30,000-square-foot facility with five classrooms capable of accommodating more than 250 students at any one time, 10 faculty offices and a 4,000-square-foot engineering lab capable of providing advanced coursework for aspiring oilfield engineers.
The building is a response to the oilfield and other petroleum-related industries pouring into the area. Businesses have complained they can’t find enough workers to fill skilled jobs. It was built with a $4 million commitment from the state and a $4 million contribution from BP. It will help to satisfy workforce demands being driven by worldwide growth in oil and gas production and the retirement of baby boomers.
“It’s going to allow us to serve many more students than before,” said Jimmy Sawtelle, the system’s senior vice-president for workforce solutions. “The industry support was critically important.”
Currently, the college’s Petroleum Division serves about 170 students. Graduates earn an associate of applied science degree in integrated production technologies.Starting in 2015, students will also be able to earn an AAS degree in production maintenance. The college will be able to serve more than 600 students annually between the two programs. They’ll train on state-of-the art equipment made possible by BP’s investment.
At Fletcher and elsewhere, Louisiana foresees more growth in workforce development efforts.
“The demand is there,” Sullivan said. “We are focused on production, on output. Our economy is growing fast. It’s a good place to be.”