State Representative Rodney Schamerhorn expressed disappointment recently after hearing Shreveport was chosen to host an Amazon distribution center. “The way Natchitoches is located with the port, rail and I-49, (Hwy 6) east and west, it’s a shame nothing has landed here. It really is,” he says. “People come here and they do a survey and it’s the workforce. They have to have the right people.”
Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce President Laura Lyles suggests providing the projected 1,000 or so employees needed to staff the Amazon fulfillment center would have been a tall order for Natchitoches to fill. Instead, she believes solving fundamental challenges with the parish’s workforce will better position Natchitoches to take advantage of its existing assets and attract smaller scale, but equally attractive opportunities. “A lot of our top employers are talking to each other about the challenges they face; for example, early childhood education and access to it,” she says. “They are talking to each other, trying to figure out creative solutions so that everybody can benefit.”
“A lot of people tell us we should stay out of education and focus on business, “ Lyles remarks. “The two are absolutely connected. That is our future workforce, so we have to have a hand in education.” She offers an example of the cooperative ethos she sees taking hold in Natchitoches. “NRMC specifically is collaborating with NSU and BPCC more to increase and strengthen their healthcare pipelines,” she says. Natchitoches Regional Medical Center (NRMC) listed 66 open positions on its website Oct. 11, reflecting a need for skilled healthcare workers ranging from registered nurses to radiology technologists.
As Assistant Director of NSU’s Career Center, Rachel Cunningham believes the university, along with other educational infrastructure, is essential to attracting new businesses and residents. “Do you want to know where they look first?” she asks. “Education.” Among the metrics people use to evaluate whether to relocate to a community, education looms larger than most. Perception of local schools weighs heavily on homebuyers when assessing a community’s desirability. On the other end of the equation, many businesses look for an educated populace when expanding or relocating to reduce their challenges around staffing for skilled positions.
The impact of a college or university on its surrounding community is most closely tied to its enrollment, as students work in local businesses, shop in nearby stores and dwell in rented housing. Although NSU’s fall enrollment declined to only 9,389 following years of topping 10,000 enrolled students, it conferred degrees to nearly 2,000 skilled nurses, business specialists, engineering technologists and others in the prior year alone. The continuous stream of students graduating from Northwestern State should more than replenish many of the workforce requirements of surrounding employers, but a widespread perception among the business community is that many newly minted graduates don’t remain in Natchitoches once they graduate.
Handshake, a job application platform used by the NSU Career Center that focuses on serving university students and alumni, affirmed the local assessment when it revealed in its company blog that barely half of the job applications it processed from graduates of southern universities were submitted to positions located within the region compared to between two-thirds and three-quarters of graduates from other regions.
The NSU Career Center also enhances the workforce contribution of enrolled students by helping place them in roles where they gain new skills and on-the-job experience. While the Career Center serves students of every classification, Cunningham says their workload skews heavily toward students who are approaching graduation. “For part-time jobs anybody can drop in here,” says Cunningham. “The majority of the classes we work with are juniors, seniors, even graduate level (students) trying to get them jobs or internships.” She suggests setting an appointment early, “We’re booked pretty much until they graduate for the semester.”
Lyles believes local employers may suffer from preconceptions university graduates have of small towns. “They don’t typically know what jobs are available here and know the value in them,” she says. “They think they’re going to find some amazing job in some big metro area.” She believes Natchitoches offers its fair share of rewarding prospects. “There’s a lot of opportunity in Natchitoches to be a big fish in a small pond. You just have to look for them,” she says. “There’s some good paying, high wage, high demand jobs in Natchitoches Parish that people are just not aware of or not interested in and I think it’s just a matter of speaking to them in a way that’s more interesting.”
One example of an opportunity available to those who dig a little deeper is found at Southern Scripts, a pharmacy benefit management firm headquartered in Natchitoches. It recently began looking for a Senior Executive Administrator, a role that directly supports the company’s CEO. Although the position is listed as based in Shreveport, it goes on to clarify the company prefers candidates who reside in Natchitoches and makes reference to relocation assistance.
NSU isn’t the only institution of higher learning in Natchitoches. Bossier Parish Community College’s (BPCC) courses complement Northwestern State’s by offering programs that help their students focus on specific skills and enter the workforce faster. Schamerhorn believes the effectiveness of community colleges and trade schools arises from their flexibility when working with an area’s existing employers. “Where the community college is going to come in is because if you have somebody wanting to come into your area, they will set their classes up to provide a workforce,” he explains. “Their curriculum is set up a little differently than the university because they’re there to fine tune the workers, so whenever they leave, they’re ready to go.”
Gwen Fontenot, Dean of BPCC’s Natchitoches Campus, explains that community colleges maintain flexibility by offering two distinct training pathways. While their degree programs are offered through the academic pathway, the workforce pathway provides specific skill certifications based on demand from local employers. “A company comes to us and we have a conversation to determine what their needs are,” she says. “We will work with those partners to administer those courses to their employees.” She emphasizes that small employers are welcome to approach BPCC to discuss their workforce requirements. “No matter what size the business is, BPCC can customize training and provide education to suit the individuals. That’s what we’re here for,” she says. “It could be mom and pop size, it could be a nonprofit like Ben D. Johnson or it could be a large multinational like International Paper.”
Because of BPCC’s local focus, Fontenot says students are less likely to leave the Natchitoches area after graduating. “For the most part our students have roots here, so they stay here,” she says. “They might go to RoyOMartin in Lena or they might go to Plastitek in Alexandria, but for the most part their roots, their domiciled home is still in Natchitoches Parish.” She points to healthcare roles known for offering lucrative travel contracts. “Even our practical nurses that finish our program here are most likely to stay rooted here in the community,” she says.
Fontenot describes an industry partnership BPCC has with General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) that it will soon expand to Natchitoches. “GDIT, they’re like a call center for government agencies; one of their main offices is right next to our Bossier campus and they have since been expanding out to communities and setting up call centers,” she reveals. “We’re going to be teaching their employees (a) customer service credential and in turn, they’ll be hiring people locally (and) providing jobs for the economy.”
The Ben D. Johnson Center recently relaunched and expanded its workforce development program with funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) through its employment and training (ENT) initiative. Program Administrator Darrin Nixon explains the revamped program offers lessons in soft skills, professional etiquette and an expanded range of skill certifications. “We’ve created a whole new curriculum,” he says. “We’ve partnered with BPCC to provide a few IBC’s, industry-based certifications. Those are going to be OSHA 10-hour (and) OSHA 30-hour basic instruction courses.” He describes courses ranging from HiSET equivalency diploma preparation to food service safety and construction skills like painting and drywall installation.
Nixon reveals their new funding source also allows the Center to help a broad spectrum of disadvantaged workers become self-sufficient. “The program is designed to basically help individuals reestablish their economic footing: just to get back on their feet,” he says. “The ultimate goal of the program is once the participants phase out of the SNAP ENT program that they’re no longer SNAP recipients.” Instead of the previous eligibility requirements that participants be between 18 and 24 years old, unemployed and out of school, he says their new funding only stipulates that participants be eligible for SNAP benefits and aged 17 or older.
For younger Natchitoches residents, Lyles says the Chamber has begun reaching out to their counterparts in public education about focusing on workforce skills. “We’re focused on recognizing our teachers and students and connecting them to the business community,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who think you’ve got to start young, like junior high and high school, to talk to them about what career pathways they’re on and make them aware.”
Natchitoches Parish Technical and Career Center counselor Chelsea Calhoun indicates Natchitoches Parish students have opportunities to develop their career interests before they graduate. “We partner with Career Compass of Louisiana, the organization that helps them get ready for either college or the workforce,” she says. Students have opportunities to take dual enrollment courses and learn skills like welding and certified nursing assistant credentials while in high school, and she highlights the importance of opportunities for students to connect directly with employers. “Our biggest thing is probably the College and Career Fair where they get to see some of the industries we have around Natchitoches and nearby cities.”
Lyles believes there’s broad support in Natchitoches for enhancing the local workforce and offers examples of initiatives to bring new workforce learning opportunities to classrooms of all kinds. “We had our first community meeting into transfer VR (virtual reality) headsets that are workforce simulations,” she says. “There’s a lot more communication, and I feel like everybody is on board and talking about what we need to do.”