The Once & Future Workforce

How GNOu is Helping to Grow, Train & Diversify Workers and Opportunities
Frame 14 07 2020 01 12 16

Economic and business development leaders in Greater New Orleans have long understood that bridging the gap between education and industry is one of the most critical needs in our region. It’s a concept universally known as workforce development—put simply, ensuring that workers are equipped with skills that match the immediate needs of businesses in their area. 

When working efficiently, a workforce pipeline will consistently train and prepare workers for jobs that not only exist now, but also for jobs that will exist in the future, effectively raising the overall wealth of the workforce, promoting business development and creating even more opportunities in a wider range of industries.

However, when the pipeline is broken, an area will see an overproduction of workers in industries with few opportunities, while underproducing workers in industries with high demand. Identifying and repairing any such gaps in the Greater New Orleans talent pipeline is what led GNO, Inc. to establish its own demand-driven workforce development program, GNOu.

“GNOu exists to convene, connect and facilitate high-demand, high-wage career pathways between higher-education institutions and our industries,” says Josh Tatum, GNOu Program Manager. “We know that Greater New Orleans is a higher-education destination. We’re one of few metropolitan areas in the country with more than a dozen higher-education institutions, encompassing everything from medical schools to law schools and HBCUs.

“Our goal is to get education and industry leaders in the same room to create partnerships that ensure students are receiving a market relevant curriculum, which will lead graduates to actually obtaining a job.”

GNOu takes its cues from industry, subverting the typical supply-driven approach which requires businesses to create jobs—a fine concept in theory, but not the most effective way to meet a region’s immediate needs or to quickly put graduates to work. Instead, GNOu’s demand-driven model is designed to synchronize industry needs and educational output.

Local educators are already putting this approach to work:
after consultation with GNO, Inc., Dillard University launched
its Urban Water Management Certificate Program to train
workers who will be equipped to handle problems like flooding, stormwater
surge and sinking land. Meanwhile, GNOu’s mechatronics apprenticeship program is in its second cohort, training apprentices at Delgado, Nunez and Northshore Technical Community College in an “earn while you learn” format that will see them immediately placed into jobs with partners Elmer Chocolate, Laitram and Zatarain’s upon graduation.

GNOu’s demand-driven approach is also matched by the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) FastStart Workforce Development Program, which takes the initiative to a state-wide level. Susana Schowen, Director of Workforce Initiatives for LED FastStart, says her mission is twofold: both to promote the development of high-wage, high-opportunity jobs and to ensure that Louisiana’s workers have equitable access to those career pipelines. 

“Workforce development is future-oriented, and it’s about making sure it’s our own people who are going to get those jobs by addressing issues of inequity, both within the workforce and in quality of access,” Schowen says. “We work with our counterparts and make sure that, in addition to the economic development perspective, we’re all pushing toward this goal of a more resilient and equitable economy that does not depend on where or to whom a person was born.”

Combining the expertise and perspective of partners like LED, industry leaders and higher-education institutions allows GNOu to facilitate action and innovation that both address gaps in the workforce pipeline and promote a more equitable workforce ecosystem. Much of that collaboration has led to a focus on technology and STEM-intensive fields, which Schowen says are consistently undersupplied with workers despite their tremendous potential.

“Computer science, engineering, data science and analytics are fast-growing fields that are undersupplied across several industries, even though they are typically the types of jobs that are being hired for by the economic drivers,” Schowen says. “These drivers are motivated to grow as fast as they can, and they’re motivated to get and retain a workforce to help them do that. So they understand the need to diversify and address inequities within the workforce. They have every interest and incentive to do that.”

Enter the New Orleans BioInnovation Center (NOBIC), a not-for-profit business incubator dedicated to furthering bioscience innovation in the state. In partnership with GNOu and higher-education institutions in the region, NOBIC is soon to be the home of the TechHub—a place where students can collaborate and train in specialized technologies regardless of university affiliation. 

“The beauty of the TechHub is that we’re maximizing resources across our higher education system,” Tatum says. “We know these schools serve and are able to engage many different communities, so why not maximize our assets as a whole? We can bring experts and resources together to create a curriculum that aligns with industry and business, and we can provide technology training through an equity lens to make sure all people can access these opportunities they might not have even known about. That’s what the Hub does.”

Tatum says the TechHub will also give workers from other industries—such as tourism and hospitality—the opportunity to “upscale” their existing skills to begin seeking higher-paying jobs in the tech field. The term “tech,” he says, can often be misleading, as many professionals might discount themselves from technology jobs if they aren’t pursuing STEM-intensive careers like computer science or engineering.  

“The truth is that if you take the skills someone already knows and are using every day—for instance, project management or communications and marketing—and stack it with another tech skill like Java, they’re prepared to go into a client-facing tech field,” Tatum says. “That’s how we’re structuring the TechHub: Not only will there be students at an expertise level, but we also want to engage individuals who can use their skills from other industries to get a really great new job. We see this as an opportunity to build a pipeline that hits those high skills but also meets those middle skills and rapid-response opportunities.”

That’s not to say that technology is the only focus area for GNOu or LED: ultimately, the goal is to create such a robust business ecosystem that jobs are available for any skill level in any industry. But Schowen says it’s important to remember that in order to see maximized development in fields that are currently oversupplied—like the arts and humanities—the first step is to harness the potential of undersupplied industries.

“This is how we’ll be able to address poverty in Louisiana: by getting people into these undersupplied jobs where pay is better, and therefore employers are more motivated to keep them there. It gives people a really great fallback,” Schowen says. “If we don’t supply enough people in those fields to our employers, they will not be able to grow to their maximum potential. But when they are able, that’s when we’ll see growth in the larger economy, an increase in wealth and more revenue to reinvest into our communities. It’s a positive cycle of growth, where you can then open opportunities for people outside those STEM fields, but unless we focus on these things now, we don’t achieve the vibrant economy and culture we want in the future.”

The good news is that GNOu, LED, NOBIC and educational partners across the Greater New Orleans region share a unified vision and are actively building a foundation to both repair and expand the workforce pipeline. The process might take some time, but on the other side, workers in Louisiana can look forward to a region where wealth and prosperity are accessible to all people from all industries—and that’s a vision worth waiting for.