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Building an Inclusive, High–Skilled Workforce for New Orleans’ Next Economy

Susan Sellers Andre Perry Petrice Sams–Abiodun Allison Plyer Elaine Ortiz

Published: Mar 27, 2012

The economic news coming out of New Orleans is good. But the jobs of the Next Economy require higher education levels than our metro workforce has achieved. To continue our recent economic successes, business and civic leaders must work together to build a more high–skilled workforce for the New Orleans metro. By 2030, the authors’ project that the working age population of the metro will be “majority minority,” so workforce building efforts must be inclusive as well.

Executive Summary

The economic news coming out of New Orleans has been good in recent months. The New Orleans region has attracted important new companies, and jobs are up 0.2 percent from December 2007 to December 2011, while, over the same time, the country lost 4.2 percent of all jobs. Yet, the need for greater workforce development has loomed large in nearly every news report about companies considering moving to New Orleans. Some have even insisted that the state invest more in workforce development as a prerequisite for locating here.

Although often considered an economy with low–skilled and low–wage jobs, the New Orleans metro in fact has many jobs that require more education than our workforce has attained. In a recent Brookings Institution report, the New Orleans metro scored in the lowest quartile among the largest 100 metros for its gap in 2009 in the supply of educated workers relative to demand. Indeed since 1980, the industrial drivers of our regional economy have shifted from those requiring less education to those requiring more education.

To be competitive in the Next Economy, New Orleans will need to place particular emphasis on building the education and skills of its future workforce in a more inclusive way. In a conservative scenario that assumes no net in–migration, by 2030, the New Orleans metro will be “majority minority” with fully 52 percent of working age adults being people of color. This means that as white workers retire, they will most likely be replaced by minority workers. And yet the metro’s share of African American and Latino adults with an associate’s degree is significantly lower than among white adults. In 2010, 39 percent of whites had at least an associate’s degree, while only 20 percent of African American adults and 25 percent of Latino adults reached this same level of education.

Early work experiences, in addition to education, are critical for developing worker skills. Yet, minority youth who make up the fastest growing proportion of our workforce are disproportionately more likely to be disconnected from both school and work. During 2008–2010, 16 percent of African Americans in the metro between 16 and 24 years of age were disengaged from school and formal labor.

The challenge of updating the education and skills of our workforce to be competitive in the Next Economy will not be accomplished through the activities of formal educational systems and institutions alone. If we are to continue our recent economic successes, coordinated action across a range of corporate, political, civic, and community leaders is needed to improve existing workforce, education, and training systems so they work for all races and ethnicities. Post–Katrina New Orleans may be in its best position ever to take on this challenge.

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