Students Today, Leaders Tomorrow
Officials at the Port and L.E. Fletcher Tech ensure current curriculum meets the needs of an ever-evolving industry.
If the massive amounts of various raw materials and refined products that come and go up and down the Mississippi River are the lifeblood of the Port of South Louisiana, then surely the skilled men and women who work tirelessly within the Port District are its heartbeat.
More than 30,000 jobs in the River Parishes alone are supported by the Port’s activities, and considering the rapid development and expansion seen along this vital 54-mile stretch of water, the immediate need for well-rounded, educated students trained in various maritime disciplines has never been greater.
While traditional four-year universities in southeast Louisiana continue to churn out highly-skilled graduates seeking to start careers along the river, several local community colleges – such as L.E. Fletcher Tech – have worked hand-in-hand with outside advisory boards (many that include representatives from the Port of South Louisiana) to tailor their associate degree and certification programs so that their students can hit the grounding running after graduation.
Specifically, given recent post-COVID staffing challenges many employers have faced in all industries, community college administrators have noticed students signing up for classes that will directly prepare them for high-paying, long-lasting careers in various facets of the maritime industry.
“Our mission is to not only train students to directly enter the workforce, but to also transfer to 4-year universities,” Fletcher Tech Chancellor Kristine Strickland says. “What’s interesting, though, is that we have seen a shift – a subtle shift over the past three years, I’d say – where kids are coming in with the mentality, ‘I have a plan; I want to acquire the requisite skills for a certain profession, and I want to be the kind of candidate employers are seeking.’
“It’s becoming rarer and rarer for students to say, ‘I’m going to college simply for the love of learning.’” Strickland continues. “No, most come in with a strong objective career path: I want to be a nurse, I want to be a welder, I want a career in maritime because of the opportunities places like the Port of South Louisiana can provide for me and my family.”
Along those same lines, recruiters from businesses situated within the Port District have relayed the need for employees equipped with a diverse base skillset when they leave school – meaning they have training, or certifications, in various disciplines applicable to the maritime industry. Because of that, Strickland says many students at Fletcher Tech are seeking to acquire “stackable credentials” – meaning that while they they’re advancing through the next level of training or re-training, they’re also adding peripheral training in other areas, all while continuing to work.
“From this seat, I’ve probably seen more changes in the needs of industry over the past two years than ever before,” Strickland says. “COVID has not only changed the way people work, but it has also changed what employers are looking for in their workforce.
“There’s a higher demand on ‘soft skills’ – a broader base of knowledge in various sectors of an industry so that businesses can have those employees pivot when a need arises,” she elaborates. “In maritime, those skills include heavy-equipment operation, safety certifications, because it might be you’re working one job, one day, but then a new contract comes in and all of the sudden, you’re going a different direction and your boss is glad you have the base skills to fill various needs.”
Currently, Fletcher Tech offers several associate degree programs directly or indirectly applicable to finding employment at any of the major southeast Louisiana ports: Machine Tool Technology, Marine Diesel Engine Technician, and Welding with specializations in pipe welding and shipbuilding. Students can also get several technical certificates (Heavy Equipment Operation, Drone Operation) or earn their Commercial Driver’s License.
Thanks to Fletcher Tech’s relationship with local industry leaders in various business sectors – such as leaders at the Port of South Louisiana – course creators at places like Fletcher Tech will soon be offering additional maritime-related degree programs.
“We are very frank when we sit down, ‘Where are your gaps in the workforce? Are there skills deficiencies within your current workforce or future workforce that we can assist with through training and education?’” Strickland says. “And they are frank with us in return, noting areas of our curriculum that need to be emphasized, or curriculum that we should be adding to make sure our graduates are ready to enter the workforce and be up to speed on the ever-changing energy and maritime landscape.”
For instance, Fletcher Tech plans to enhance its Coast Guard certification program, enabling more of its graduates to find full-time work aboard vessels that traverse the lower Mississippi River. Administrators are also finalizing a Cyber Security program designed for digital attacks on ports and ships, which will offer specialized training to deal with maritime-centric security breaches that might not apply to other types of businesses.
Finally, Fletcher Tech is part of a consortium seeking to establish a true Louisiana Maritime Academy that will graduate boat pilots trained to handle the intricacies of navigating challenging regional inland waterways like the lower Mississippi River.
“The mission of community college is to ensure that individuals have access to high-wage, high-demand careers,” Strickland said. “At the end of the day, the maritime industry – and specifically commerce that takes place at the various ports in southeast Louisiana – is a vital component to this state’s and this nation’s stability and security.
“So having the ports, and specifically the Port of South Louisiana, engaged in what we teach our maritime students ensures that these important institutions are receiving well-prepared graduates ready to enter into these skilled, demanding and critical careers.”