Despite years of attention, a large share of Louisiana’s population continues to live in poverty at the same time that business and industry is struggling to find enough qualified people to fill jobs that pay well. Filling those jobs would help grow their businesses, our economy and the tax base.
On the one hand, our state budget can’t keep pace with the cost of supporting all of the people who cannot support themselves, as evidenced by the cuts in the administration’s current budget proposal. On the other hand, business and industry and many other taxpayers believe they are being squeezed too hard already to support those and other services, like education, roads and locking up convicts.
You can argue that a structural deficit with the budget and less-than-thoughtful tax policy are to blame. They certainly contribute, but the root cause is even more fundamental. Louisiana has a structural deficit in workforce development.
Louisiana has produced people with limited employability and earnings potential in alarmingly high numbers for decades thanks to abysmal dropout rates. And Louisiana was decades late to the game of aligning education and training to the workforce needs of business and industry, particularly in postsecondary education. That has left us with too many people who can’t get a decent job and employers who can’t find enough qualified people to fill their good jobs.
The solution sounds simple enough. Step 1: Improve high school graduation rates. Step 2: Move people from government assistance to good jobs on private payrolls. We’ve been making good progress on Step 1 for the past few years, but not enough on Step 2. And it’s Step 2 that would provide the best return and the most budget relief, particularly in the short term.
Moving people from poverty to paying taxes would increase government revenue without the government squeezing harder. Everybody wins.
If only it were that simple.
Transforming any of the 1.1 million or so adults in Louisiana who lack either a high school diploma or a postsecondary credential costs money, and all of it is spoken for. The state spends more than $4.5 billion of general fund or equivalent dollars on public education, from kindergarten through doctorates and professional degrees. However, the state spends just 3% of that on community and technical colleges, which supply the people with the skills and credentials needed for 55% of what Louisiana Workforce Commission data says are the good jobs that need to be filled each year.
It is a fact that short-term training aligned to workforce needs is the only viable, quick pathway to good jobs for adults who today are undereducated and underskilled. And advancing those folks from poverty to paying taxes has to be part of the state’s strategy to avoid being in the same budget mess again next year and every year thereafter.
Finding the money is what makes it hard. But what do those poor people and their families cost the state today? How can we afford not to do it?
Curt Eysink is executive director for workforce solutions at the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. He served as executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission from 2009 to January 2016.
Originally published in the second quarter 2016 edition of 10/12 Industry Report. Read more from this issue at 1012industryreport.com.