Connie Fabre, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance Inc.

The skills gap is a topic that has gained increased attention over the last 10 years. The issue described is one where potential employees cannot find the type of employment they’d like to have and employers cannot find the type of employees they’d like to hire.

Mike Rowe of the TV show Dirty Jobs has done a good job of highlighting the problem, as have leaders from many industry sectors. Louisiana state government from the governor to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the Department of Education responded with action, and since 2007 the skilled workforce has grown tremendously.

But are employees earning more today? Are employers happier?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Baton Rouge’s median family income rose by 9.88% from 2012 to 2015. In the same time frame, the U.S. median family income rose by only 5.75%. In addition, Louisiana as a whole increased by only 5.66%.

This shows that something happening in the Capital Region was different. At the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, we like to think that significant industrial investment of about $40 billion in the region is in large part the reason.

GBRIA was formed in 1970 as an answer to industrial managers’ need for a competitive, skilled workforce and safe operations. In 2006, members made a decision to increase the number of qualified workers by investing in Louisiana’s education system.

Industry members worked through GBRIA with state agencies and the governor and Legislature to increase funding to Louisiana’s community and technical colleges, supported change of the Louisiana high school diploma to include industry-based certifications, and initiated outreach to youth and adults to let them know about the great careers in industry.

Today, GBRIA continues efforts to improve the area’s pipeline of talent, ensuring access to skilled, local workers, as well as to provide opportunities for individuals in the greater Baton Rouge area to establish steady, well-paying careers.

In the last year, LCTCS grew its credentialing capacity to 5,000 National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Level 1 credentials per year. LCTCS has also increased its number of industry partnerships and skilled labor programs such as The Dow Chemical Apprenticeship Program. [See pages 34-37 for more on the latter.]

Baton Rouge Community College has also just announced a public-private workforce training and career opportunity effort with an $8 million expansion and renovation of its North Acadian Thruway campus to offer dual enrollment courses on industrial skills to East Baton Rouge high schools, including Istrouma High School.

Istrouma is not the only high school introducing students to craft and technical skills. An increasing number of high schools in Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes are reintroducing craft and technical skills training programs into their curricula. By introducing welding, electrical and carpentry skills to high school students, the schools provide these young people with exposure to more career opportunities.

In addition, many high schools have adopted Jump Start Program pathways, which require students to attain industry credentials in order to graduate high school.

Some students may even receive NCCER certifications by the time they graduate, which makes them eligible to begin work at the age of 18 making a competitive wage, usually in the range of $12/hour-$15/hour, depending on the craft.

According to the year-end 2015 GBRIA Industrial Craft Wage Survey of members, the average top-level wage is just over $30/hour, or $62,400 per year. Often, skilled workers have the opportunity to earn more by working some overtime or traveling to jobs outside the region.

GBRIA hosts an annual Craft Workforce Development Awards banquet to promote skilled craft careers and to foster continuous improvement in the quality of skilled workers. GBRIA recognizes area high schools that have implemented craft or technical skills programs, industrial contractors, and individual “Workforce Development Champions” who have demonstrated special initiatives or accomplishments in craft workforce development.

This awards program has asked local contractors to explore and improve their workforce development programs and, in some cases, even implement new elements of a workforce development program. For example, in the area of assessments, contractors must answer how they recognize employee feedback with respect to training and workforce development. In 2007, when asked whether a contractor had a suggestion box system, only 30% reported that they do; during 2016’s award program, 80% reported that they do.

GBRIA creates the environment to facilitate collaboration between industry leaders, contractors, education officials, and state and local government. Most high schools that have implemented craft training have been able to do so due to their partnerships with local contractors and plants, who sponsor nearby schools. Industry members also steer advisory committees in area two-year and four-year universities to meet industry’s needs.

So does the skills gap still exist? Industry members currently report good availability for most crafts, with electrical, instrumentation, welders, pipefitters, millwrights and scaffold builders in highest demand.

And from employees’ perspective, wages are up in our region; however, there surely still is a skills gap, and of course industrial skills are not the only gap that exists. But we believe that the gap has narrowed significantly through the combined efforts of many stakeholders.

Connie P. Fabré is the executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance Inc. Jessica Pranjic, the manager of communications and workforce development for the alliance, also contributed to this column.

This article was originally published in the third quarter 2017 edition of 10/12 Industry Report