Senate district 36 candidate Ryan Gatti listens to questions about the need for skilled labor in Minden. Candidate Henry Burns was also on hand to answer questions and discuss the needs in vocational education. The discussion included business owners, education leaders and elected officials. Michelle Bates/Press-Herald

Business leaders, educators and elected officials met Tuesday to put their heads together on how to bring skilled labor to Minden.

Minden economic development director James Graham told an audience of about 30 or more that he and mayor Tommy Davis spent the last several weeks meeting with businesses in the community and the recurring need seems to be skilled labor.

“It came as a result of a discussion that the mayor and myself had with a number of companies around the city,” he said, adding that statistics show economic development “has a hard time” in states with lower graduation rates.

The candidates for Senate District 36 were on hand to discuss their stance on vocational education and the direction it needs to go. Candidate Todd Hollenshead was not in attendance due to a prior commitment.

Henry Burns and Ryan Gatti both say skilled labor is important to district 36 as well as the state as a whole, but both shared different ideas on how to get there. Burns talked about the progress that outgoing Sen. Robert Adley, along with legislators and those before him made, saying technical colleges are key to providing skilled labor.

“Your two-year degrees are now paying sometimes better than four-year degrees and seem to be in demand,” Burns said. “Technical training is the key to our future and for job opportunities not only to attract businesses but to provide good paying jobs for people.”
Gatti says because of all the cuts to education, Louisiana’s education system as a whole is suffering. He says the first thing to get cut during legislative sessions each year is education.

“We’re still struggling with the same dropout rate, with people going to college,” he said. “With technical schools, this is a rabbit we’ve been chasing for decades. Businesses are tired of training people for basic skills. We need kids to be working in the ninth and tenth grades.”

A variety of questions were asked of the candidates, everything from how to get out from under unfunded mandates to how to getting Common Core out of Louisiana. Questions also included those about work ethic as well as funding to send kids to technical schools.

Following the discussion, business owner Ricky Sanders, of Sanders Machine, says he was leaving with more questions than answers.

“It sounds like we’re talking about a problem that we’re not fixing,” he said.
He explained that his business is very math intensive and applicants must pass a math test in order to be considered for employment, and he says that maybe two out of 10 applicants can pass the test.

“We have to take them from there and figure out if we can train them to do what we do,” he said. “It’s complicated for us to find the right people.”

He says there is a disconnect between real world job application and what is being taught in the vocational schools but is optimistic about the direction vocational schools are taking.

“I think there are things in place,” he said. “I think (rep.) Gene Reynolds is working towards some long term solutions, but I think more than anything it’s about exposing kids to the idea that (they can continue their education).”

Interim director Dianne Clark, of Northwest Louisiana Technical College, says Tuesday’s meeting was a good start in opening dialogue and it’s important that the next senator for district 36 is an advocate for technical education. She says it will take everyone working together to bring programs to northwest Louisiana to meet the educational needs of the business community.

“The support in the room tonight was evident and we appreciate the community members for coming out and expressing their support for our college,” she said. “It is important that the community members and the candidates stay focused on our goal of providing high quality, high skilled, high wage, high demand training to our northwest Louisiana citizens.”