Good News and Bad News

The new Louisiana Coastal Master Plan will bring jobs, but maybe only for a short time.
Davis Kidd

Now that the state Legislature has approved the 2017 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, many are touting the plethora of jobs that will be created by its implementation.

There is no doubt that with more than $8 billion from BP the execution of the master plan will generate thousands of jobs at a variety of skill levels. However, as it stands these jobs will not be sustained once the BP settlement funding runs out in 15 years.

One of the ways these jobs might continue is if the industry becomes a self-sustaining cluster. To do so, Louisiana must not only develop scientific preeminence in the field of flood risk reduction, but also commercialize that science.

From geotextiles, to oyster reefs, to massive civil engineering projects, to watershed monitoring and management, to new ways of managing subsidence — there are likely dozens of innovations in flood risk reduction that could be developed and marketed to bring in revenue from national and global markets that will soon face these challenges.

Leaders must commit to a comprehensive set of long-term strategies to develop supports for this cluster — supports that have proven critical in the formation of every cluster that is driving today’s prosperous regional economies.

According to data in our recently released Coastal Index 2017, the dearth of educated workforce in Southeast Louisiana will continue to be an obstacle to growing the cluster. Businesses will need to both attract workers from elsewhere via higher wages and build the skills of the local workforce to fully staff these projects.

The state has demonstrated little appetite for investing in higher education, so businesses may not be able to rely on public institutions to supply a skilled workforce.

The comprehensive plan to grow this cluster should include innovative private sector solutions that recognize this reality. Public-private partnerships, such as the recent effort to streamline federal permitting around environmental reviews for restoration projects, can help to address uncertainties created by regulations that stymie private industry’s ability to invest in workforce development.

The comprehensive plan should also include strategies that grow Louisiana businesses. Government agencies that award water management contracts can support this effort by “unbundling” contracts into smaller amounts prior to the proposal stage. This will help more Louisiana firms successfully compete for projects.

Many practices are already in place to boost the use of Louisiana firms as subcontractors to large companies that win water management contracts. Importantly, data on the dollars that actually flowed to subcontractors should be published to ensure that the proposed local share is being met.

Essential to the comprehensive plan will be strategies for commercializing Louisiana’s cutting-edge science for reducing future flood risk. Academic institutions must begin to see the scholarship that happens within their walls as a prime source of innovation needed to spur economic growth in the region. Scientists should work directly with entrepreneurs and local companies who can help them commercialize their inventions.

Incubators have flourished post-Katrina, and “pitch” contests are frequent. Incubators could host “reverse pitches” in which larger water management companies pitch their needs to startups, thereby generating new ventures closely related to larger companies — a dynamic that will be key to the water management cluster’s formation.

With growing pools of funding in New Orleans and major research institutions in Baton Rouge, strategies are needed to connect investors with inventors.

Clusters take years to develop, and therefore efforts toward building a water management cluster in Southeast Louisiana must be sustained. Done well, Southeast Louisiana can truly turn its biggest challenge into its greatest opportunity.

Allison Plyer is chief demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans. Dr. Plyer is author of The New Orleans Index series, developed in collaboration with the Brookings Institution to track the region’s progress toward prosperity, and she leads The Data Center’s research on the development of the water management cluster in Southeast Louisiana as published in The Coastal Index series.



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