“The Invisible Giant:” Waguespack Urges Workplace Preparation for the Maritime Industry

The Port of New Orleans hosted their second Maritime Workforce Summit and Career Expo today at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The event was an opportunity for stakeholders in the maritime industry to come together and discuss how Louisiana can prepare to both employ citizens in maritime trades, and further, to help grow the industry as a whole.

Stephen Waguespack, President of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) gave the keynote address to the crowd of about fifty people from a range of business and educational backgrounds. Waguespack’s focus was the results of LABI’s Maritime Workforce Study. Although Waguespack cautioned that the fieldwork was conducted prior to the throes of the current oil downturn, he stated that the employers who responded to the series of surveys used to collect the data were confident about where the gaps in the “school to work pipeline” existed. Waguespack also said that another study may be necessary to gauge how the current “softness” of the oil and gas market contributes to demand for workers in the maritime space, as the data was collected between December 2014 and January 2015.

“We surveyed over 400 members throughout the state and a number of maritime companies throughout the state…and then we did some national research to see how we compare to other states,” Waguespack explained. “Maritime is definitely the invisible giant in the state of Louisiana. Many folks throughout the state just do not understand. Twenty percent of Louisiana jobs are connected to the maritime industry and it has about an $11 billion total annual impact in the state.”

Aside from the enormity of the industry generally, Waguespack spent the majority of his address discussing the “takeaways” for policy and education in order to lead people, especially young people, to the “high wage, high demand” positions in maritime that do not require a traditional four year degree. “Of the fifty major companies that responded to the survey, just those fifty alone indicated that they would need about three thousand additional employees in the next four years. This isn’t just growth, this is major growth.”

In general, Waguespack indicated that the lack of qualified applicants (expected to be made more dramatic by the aging workforce) for maritime jobs comes down to a marketing problem and, connected with that, a lack of partnerships in the state’s community colleges and high schools.

“First and foremost, we need to promote the Blue Economy,” Waguespack said. “What that means is that we need to think about coastal jobs and port jobs as part of the same thing. Coastal and ports shouldn’t be considered in silos. We need to bridge these gaps, especially between ports like the ones in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.”

In the same marketing and cultural visibility vein, Waguespack articulated LABI’s recommendations to convene an “industry driven maritime task force” with the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council, create a “vision for a world class” maritime training institute, and to be more aggressive in promoting the training programs at community colleges like Delgado to the industry. “These programs help meet these workforce challenges and it increases revenue for colleges at the same time.”

On the education side, Waguespack urged industry and educators to create “clear pathways” to a career in maritime from the time the training programs are offered in high schools and community colleges, while at the same time allowing more training courses to go for college credit in case a student chooses to pursue a four year degree instead. Touting the changes to the TOPS scholarship rules in the past Legislative Session, which now allow TOPS funds to be used for career-oriented training programs, Waguespack explained, “You’ve got to paint a picture for these kids…show them what kind of jobs they can do and what kind of salaries they can earn.”

Addressing the educational imperative which Waguespack prefaced in his discussion, Jessica Vallelungo followed up by giving attendees an in depth look at the “Jump Start” program for career training. Vallelungo, the Career Technical Education Coordinator for St. Bernard Parish Schools, stated that the overhaul of career diploma students was already taking off. “We want to put these students in high demand, high wage jobs and teach them what it actually means to be employable,” she said. The first full Jump Start graduates are the Class of 2018 and, due to the fact that the program was created by meeting with and tailoring to the needs of industry, Vallelungo expressed considerable optimism that it could be a model for other high schools.

LABI published the full details of its Maritime Workforce Study here. More information about Jump Start graduation pathways is available here.

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