Orleans Region after Katrina, a Perspective
by Dexter Ligot-Gordon
Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita exacerbated and exposed the entrenched poverty and social isolation
that touched New Orleans long before the hurricanes touched shore. The hope
is that this devastation will become a catalyst for a better future.
In 2006, my colleague at NEDLC, Susie Suafai, and I spent time in New
Orleans to hold focus groups with local residents and employers. We examined
the challenges companies face in recruiting a skilled workforce and that
residents face in getting job training and employment. These focus groups
were held to help us and our partners develop recommendations for sector
initiatives in health care, construction, and shipbuilding.
After one of the focus groups, a local minister volunteered to tour me
through the neighborhoods—not through the areas torn down by the hurricanes,
but through the public housing projects and poor neighborhoods. He expressed
that far before the storms ripped roofs from New Orleans homes, the city’s
economic foundations were already eroded. The minister pointed out that the
city had a fractured public education system where classrooms were reduced
to disciplinary corrals with students too often deprived of books and the
skills needed to succeed in work or college. The lack of a decent
educational system compounded with economic blight resulted in communities
that are besieged by violence, rampant drug activity, and extreme rates of
Local business owners told stories that painted an equally distraught
economic picture. A year after the storms, only about a half of the workers
had returned to the city due to severe housing shortages, the perception of
continued instability, and the prospect of leading a better life elsewhere.
The labor shortage created a number of destabilizing shocks to the economy,
sparking an intense competition among employers for workers. Employers in
higher-skilled industries reported that they were losing a large pool of
employable residents to employers with lower-skilled job openings. Employers
such as fast food chain restaurants were offering immediate openings with
extraordinary wages, lucrative signing incentives, and attractive weekly
retention bonuses, appealing to local residents who could earn the same
amount of money in a fast food restaurant for example, than they would in a
higher-skilled job in construction or health care which requires a few
months of training. These conditions are forcing many employers in
higher-skilled industries to recruit out of the region and in some cases,
out of the country.
Despite the bleak surroundings, threads of hope and a desire to work
together were woven into the stories told by local residents and employers.
Residents continually said that they wanted to get jobs in construction and
shipbuilding because they wanted to learn the skills that would help them
rebuild their homes and community. When asked about the health care
industry, residents displayed a desire to become nurses and health care
workers to take care of their community members. Employers likewise
emphasized the desire to build the New Orleans community by cultivating
local talent and providing good jobs to the local community. They expressed
interest in investing in job training programs to address literacy problems
and the challenged education systems. Overwhelmingly, they expressed a
desire to create new ways that industry, the local community, education, and
government could work together to rebuild the community and resolve the
deeper problems that has impeded the city for generations.
NNSP is working with Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Lindy Boggs Literacy
Center along with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce to create sector
initiatives in the construction, health care and shipbuilding industries.
New Orleans and the State of Louisiana, are increasingly investing in sector
strategies to strengthen the regional economy. They are realigning the local
education, workforce training, and social service infrastructures to close
the gaps in the labor market. With the aim of rebuilding New Orleans and its
economy, the local community is using sector strategies to provide residents
with good jobs and employers with the skilled workers they need to thrive.