Local manufacturers talk workforce challenges and opportunities

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Chamber members dined and chatted while waiting to learn about the opportunities and challenges faced by three of the area’s industrial employers. From left are mill representatives Scott Lonadier, International Paper; Peyton Weeks, Weyerhaeuser; and Brian Brock, Alliance Compressors; and Northwest Louisiana Economic Partnership President and CEO Justyn Dixon. Nathan Wilson

Nathan Wilson
Representatives from three of the largest employers in Natchitoches Parish met for a panel discussion of regional economic drivers Oct. 19 to mark Manufacturing Month.
The Chamber of Commerce sponsored discussion was moderated by Northwest Louisiana Economic Partnership President and CEO, Justyn Dixon, who asked participants Brian Brock of Alliance Compressors, Scott Lonadier of International Paper (IP) and Peyton Weeks of Weyerhaeuser to delve into themes of workforce readiness, community investment and economic impact. “They’re all three from Louisiana and they’re running Fortune 500 companies,” Dixon remarked.
The discussion began with each panelist describing their facility’s impact on the local economy, including a combined $75 million in annual wages along with millions of dollars more each year in taxes, capital expenditures and community partnerships.
The panelists also described their company’s output and its impact on modern life. Weeks offered an idea of the importance of their engineered would products to the construction industry. He illustrated his point by offering an idea of the volume of product Weyerhaeuser produces locally each year. “We will circle the Earth almost One and a half times with what we produce,” he said.
Brock described Alliance’s products as an invisible, yet essential feature of southern homes: “We manufacture the compressors that keep your house cool in the summer. I think everybody in Louisiana can appreciate that,” he said. “If you look at the condensing unit outside your home, you will probably see one of our compressors in it… We make somewhere between 1.5 and two million compressors a year.”
Lonadier described the importance of the cardboard manufactured at IP for shipping products around the world. “If you look at boxes, they’re not a very sexy product, but they’re very useful,” Dixon said.
Dixon responded to Lonadier with a question for the audience. “Raise your hand if you’ve had a box delivered to your home in the past month?” he asked.
The panel moved next to issues surrounding the area’s workforce. Brock described maintaining a stable workforce and adapting to inflation as his company’s biggest challenges in recent years. He explained that maintaining the pace of production had required years of long hours from Alliance’s employees. “We have run five and six day weeks straight, which is 10 to 20 hours of overtime every week for the last four years,” he said. “The last four years for our business have been absolutely crazy.”
Lonadier recalled encountering similar problems with recruiting during a recent hiring episode at International Paper. “Of the ones that were selected for an interview, we had 25% no call, no show just for the interview,” he explained. He highlighted technology-driven positions like electrical and instrumentation technicians as a prime opportunity available locally, but also one where skilled employees are in short supply, and explained that the knowledge required takes years to develop. “The nature of what we do, the technology has become so advanced, that it is very difficult for people to even comprehend it,” he said.
The issue of workforce development melded with that of community investment as Lonadier revealed that much of International Paper’s economic impact was concentrated in the Shreveport area where much of the plant’s skilled workforce resides. He suggested there was room for improvement in this regard by expanding the community’s appeal through investment in local housing and other infrastructure. “There’s nothing that attracts them to the area, and I can’t just say, hey what’s going on? You need to live in Natchitoches,” he said.
Weeks suggested paving a way forward by committing to education both in the classroom and in the community. “The better we educate our community, the better workforce we provide for each and every one of us, even if it’s not industry, whatever sector they’re in, we have a better group of people, a better society (and) a better workforce,” he said. “We create that culture. That starts with us at home. That starts with us as neighbors, with family (and) friends,” he said. “We can have the newest equipment. We can have the best technology that is available to purchase. If we don’t have a good quality workforce to run and operate it, it’s worthless. Everything we do starts and ends with good quality people.”
With over 1,300 hourly and salaried employees combined, the three panelists suggested manufacturers nationwide are confronting the same issues. Dixon summed up the sentiment, “These are not challenges that are unique to this area. It’s across the United States.”
School Board President Reba Phelps used the question and answer session to thank the panelists on behalf of the Natchitoches educational community. “Y’all do a tremendous amount for our schools and it’s very much appreciated,” she said. Each company has contributed to improving local educational outcomes by sponsoring educational resources, scholarships and after school activities like the Boys and Girls Club.
Chamber President Laura Lyles emphasized the opportunity for companies of any size to offset their tax obligations by donating to local educational initiatives. She also asked Dixon to address the topics of incentives used to attract and retain manufacturers in Louisiana.
“We might be discounting. We might be abating, but the net gain is above and beyond,” said Dixon “We would never get those taxes if they did not invest here.” He closed the session with words of optimism “Don’t buy into the narrative that people are leaving Louisiana. I came to Louisiana!”