College officials urge support for workforce programs
By Jacob Batte
Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 7:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 7:29 p.m.

Higher education officials are playing dual roles when it comes to the state-created $40 million incentive aimed at increasing workforce and research development.

On one hand, officials are pointing to the progress being made with money received by the state and industry partners through the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, set up by the Legislature last spring.

Nicholls State University, for example, recently began renovating one of its buildings in preparation to move its growing Petroleum Engineering Technology and Safety Management Program in later this year.

But on the other hand, officials are also having to convice state legislators of the necessity of keeping the program in place beyond its first year.

The workforce initiative lauded by the Governor’s Office a year ago is now on the chopping block as proposed spending cuts to colleges and universities are projected to be between $200 million and $400 million.

“We really don’t want to lose our momentum in this effort,” said Sandra Woodley, University of Louisiana System president. “We’ve got all four higher education systems working, collaborating. We’ve got really great plans and wonderful ideas.”

Even though WISE money was never guaranteed from year to year as schools must continue to apply to the state Board of Regents for the money, many universities, including Nicholls, had planned to use the aid for faculty pay and scholarships.

Louisiana colleges aren’t producing enough high-demand degrees, Woodley said, and capitalizing on programs like WISE would help higher education meet those demands.

“Any cut to WISE or education is going to set back our efforts,” she said.

Monty Sullivan, Louisiana Community and Technical College System president, said he talks daily with legislators about the importance of program.

“To us, WISE is that important,” he said. “Our pitch is real simple. The investment of WISE dollars targets the limited state resource for the highest demand programs and the rate of return for the state will be a larger form of our population educated and skilled.”

Todd Keller, Nicholls interim vice president of academic affairs, said in November he was disappointed when the state announced the regional university would receive almost $300,000 less than it expected. Nicholls received the minimum 20 percent industry match, bringing its total investment to more than $571,000. Several oil companies donated the total match.

Hiring industry professionals as advisors and creating scholarships for low-income students were two of three goals Nicholls had aligned with WISE money. Renovating Gouaux Hall was the other more urgent goal.

One classroom has already been renovated and is “very nice,” according to PETSM Director Michael Gautreaux.

“It doubled the capacity we could seat students in. It creates more access to the demand for the program,” he said.

The $20,000 project provided classroom capacity for 48 students.

Renovations included combining two classrooms into one, installing new flooring and ceilings, repairing sheetrock, painting and purchasing new ergonomic furnishings, Nicholls spokeswoman Stephanie Verdin said.

Officials have targeted two more classrooms to renovate.

The PETSM program experienced 50 percent growth in enrollment this year, with more than 450 students enrolled. Officials say they expect the upward enrollment to continue in the immediate future.

Gouaux serves as home to the school’s culinary program, though it is expected to move into a new building by the end of the semester.

Most community and technical colleges planned to use their money for training programs.

Earl Meador, interim Fletcher Technical Community College chancellor, said the approximately $1 million his college received as part of the initiative would be poured into its recently created safety and marine training programs with hopes of increasing the amount of skilled labor produced. The effects, he said, should be felt by summer.

Staff Writer Jacob Batte can be reached at 448-7635 or Follow him on Twitter @ja_batte.