St. John residents missing out on local industry jobs

Published 12:14 am Wednesday, April 4, 2018

RESERVE — Shalinda Austin resides in St. John the Baptist Parish and works a senior administrative position at WR Grace chemical plant in St. Charles Parish, and the industry career preparation she sees from students in each parish contrasts like night and day.

“Maybe St. John needs to adopt the same values as St. Charles,” Austin said. “St. Charles is unique in how it gets students involved. When you see a neighboring parish excel and you’re not getting the same results, you have to figure out what the blockage is.”

Her observations echo those of South Central Louisiana Technical College Reserve campus dean Penelope Shumaker.

Troubled by the lack of St. John the Baptist Parish students in nearly full classrooms, Shumaker worries industries along the Mississippi River won’t have a large enough pool of qualified local candidates to hire from.

The Reserve college campus is transitioning to River Parishes Community College system this summer, bringing a host of new opportunities including a Louisiana transfer degree program that would allow students to obtain their associates degree before transferring to a four-year college or university.

Yet, during a recent Empowering Education concert tour featuring Courtney Cole meant to raise awareness for the campus, Shumaker saw little student involvement.

Of the six students who entered for a chance to win 10 $1,000 scholarships, only two were from St. John Parish. Others were from St. James and St. Charles.

Austin said the discrepancies cross public and private schools. Her children attend private school in St. John, and she notes a lack of opportunities for students to network with industry professionals.

She suggests bridging the gap by following St. Charles’ lead in sending two students per high school to company meetings, a practice that awards community service hours while teaching students about the hiring process.

St. John Public Schools Superintendent Kevin George said the assertion that St. John Parish public school students aren’t taking advantage of technical opportunities is misleading, because there are career readiness programs including welding, nursing, business and technology already being held on East St. John High’s campus.

St. John Parish has a CTE curriculum supervisor who keeps regular contact with the Reserve college campus, according to George.

He anticipates the transition from a technical college to a community college will attract a larger number of students interested in expanded programs.

Staying local benefits students with transitioning into college and the workforce, George said.

Most employees at WR Grace are River Parishes residents, according to Austin. She said it benefits the company to hire local candidates who don’t need to relocate or uproot families.

Additionally, Austin said locals have a stake in the success of a company that financially benefits their home parish.

Bryan Gerace, workforce development coordinator for Turner Industries, attends career fairs at the Reserve college campus to seek out qualified candidates for employment.
He said maintaining a relationship with the Reserve campus is important because postsecondary education influences hiring.

“Something we really try to push is finding someone working toward a certification,” Gerace said. “A lot of the clients we work for want their contractors to have measurable skills. I think a degree or certification definitely holds a lot of weight.”

Though Reserve is used as a starting point for recruiting, Gerace said his main concern is finding people willing to put in the work, even if it means starting at the bottom.

Austin said it’s possible for employees to work their way up or attain a senior position through experience, adding top tier positions often require higher degrees.

She said it’s less about who you know and more about how willing an applicant is to fight for a job, adding opportunities exist within industry for those with educational backgrounds ranging from a high school diploma equivalency to a PhD.

“I think a lot of people disqualify themselves without applying because fear holds them back,” Austin said. “It all depends on what you’re willing to do and if you’re going to do it. You’re one decision away from changing your whole life, and you can’t let anything stop you. Keep applying. Don’t give up.”

Career Links will be held from 5 until 8 p.m. April 18 at the Reserve college campus to bring students, parents and industry representatives together to discuss professional opportunities.

Students enrolled in 10th, 11th and 12th grades are invited, along with their parents.

This year, for the first time, there are four $1,000 Scholarships that will be awarded during the event.