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Education meets (and means) business

Workforce needs discussed

The conference room of the Webster Parish Library was filled to capacity with business executives Tuesday morning as they engaged in a Workforce Preparedness meeting with parish education leaders.

School Superintendent Johnny Rowland and Northwest Louisiana Technical College director Earl Meador came to the meeting to discuss with business owners how the education system can best supply them with the workforce they need. This meeting comes as part of a collaboration between the business and education sectors arranged by James Graham, Minden’s director of economic development.

Rowland, Meador, and Greg Leong, president of Clement Industries, spoke to the Press-Herald before the meeting to discuss their goals and expectations.

“This process has been underway for some months,” Meador said. “There’s been a lot of things in the background starting this summer with Mr. Rowland and I when we both arrived at our positions, working between the school system and the college to realign what we do. We want to accomplish a very smooth flow from students into the K-12 system, into the college, and into the workforce. This is the next level of that discussion, bringing our businesses together so the work we’re doing fits in with what they need.”

Rowland said he looks forward to the opportunity to learn how the school system can improve the workforce they graduate.

“As superintendent and spokesperson for the school system, we readily accept our role in the entire structure of economic development,” he said. “We know that businesses interested in this area, one of the first thing they ask is ‘Tell us about your school system.’ Businesses want to know, what is that workforce product looking like in Webster Parish? We not only acknowledge that this is real, but we accept the challenge.”

Rowland said the only way to get better as a school system is through collaboration and discussion with businesses.

“We need to hear what businesses are seeing in our kids, what do they need, where are they deficient, what are our strengths, and where can we work together to improve those kids going into the workforce or into the technical college first,” he said.

“We look forward to the discussion that is about to happen and will continue to happen after today. We know we must improve, and that’s our goal.”

Leong said Clement Industries has been in the Minden area for 68 years. Therefore, they are extremely interested in the process of improving the area’s workforce.

“I’m excited for the collaboration between the schools that are developing the workforce and the businesses that are here or may come here,” he said. “Any good businessman will tell you that any company is only as good as the workforce they have. If we’re going to keep the leading position we have in our industry, we have to have a continually improving workforce.”

The group discussed the constantly changing modern environment and how it affects education and the workforce. Meador said neither sector can afford to remain stagnant.

“As the world changes, businesses must be ready on a moment’s notice to adjust their business model,” he said. “We as educators must be ready to do the same.”

The group highlighted several areas in which the workforce could improve and discussed ways educators and businesses could bring about that improvement. Among those areas was the teaching of soft skills such as interpersonal communication, hygiene, and punctuality.

“Normally, soft skills for us in generations past is not something we thought of teaching,” Meador said. “They picked that up at home. The family dynamic of America has changed. Students that come to us have very different soft skill sets. Everything we do now is starting to incorporate soft skills, from our orientation to our new curriculum we’re working on incorporating, which we’ll be talking about today.”

Leong mentioned another area of improvement for the workforce: awareness of the various education pathways and their merits.

“I’m glad we have high schools and technical schools here in the area,” he said. “People have this perception that everyone needs to go get a bachelor’s degree to be considered successful. The reality is there are growing, great jobs in this country for high school graduates and technical school graduates. I think we’ve done a disservice to students by not letting them know that there are great skilled trades that we need in this country for businesses to flourish, and they’re good jobs.”
An increase in financial literacy in the workforce was another pressing need the group addressed.

“We offer financial math courses in the Jump Start Pathway, which includes many of the kids who will go the technical route,” Rowland said. “I want to hear from the business community about curriculum. There are certain things we have to include in the curriculum because the state says we have to do it, but wherever we can interject something that we’re deficient in, I want to do it.”

Rowland emphasized the need to make the young workforce aware that success can be found without leaving the area.

“We need to tell the kids what’s available to them right here in Webster Parish, in Minden,” he said. “You can have these jobs and have a great salary very soon if you do what you’re supposed to do. Right here. You want that shiny truck? Get a job here and work for it.”