The top of the bad lists and the bottom of the good lists is a catchphrase that the late Gov. Buddy Roemer made part of his mantra in his 1987 upset victory in the governor’s race that year.
Roemer is gone but the phrase — and the reality — lives on in Louisiana.
What are we going to do about it?
As one might imagine, two insightful presentations at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry focused on economic competitiveness — where Louisiana might change course on specific measures of job growth and capacity to build a better future for its people.
A lot of the measures will sound familiar to regular readers of the newspaper: Louisiana was one of a handful of states to lose jobs in the decade ending in 2021, and families' average annual wages likewise declined. We shared some of those results, however, with other oil-producing states. Energy is a volatile economic sector.
Even beyond the energy sector, the state’s overall economic output declined in the same period. In the last five years for which data was available, it fell 1.9% while the nation’s rose 8.4%.
While jobs grew in a few parishes over that five-year period ending in 2021 — namely Livingston and Ascension in suburban Baton Rouge, and St. Tammany and Tangipahoa north of Lake Pontchartrain — the map of most parishes was a smear of red, indicating declines.
Those metrics were presented and analyzed by Ted Abernathy, former head of the Southern Growth Policies Board and now an economic development consultant hired by LABI. Stephen Moret, familiar to LABI members as a former head of Louisiana’s economic development efforts, followed Abernathy's presentation.
Moret, now at Strada, a national education nonprofit, focused on the talent pipelines that he and Abernathy dubbed the path forward. In terms of a sort-of-bad list, Moret noted that Louisiana’s growing job sectors reflect the state's traditional workforce strengths — petrochemical manufacturing and industrial construction — but those are slow-growth areas in terms of overall employment.
Nationally, the criteria of a “good place to do business” have shifted dramatically in the last 20 years, Moret said, with businesses focusing more on whether they can attract and retain a quality workforce to succeed.
“Today, this is the most important thing,” Abernathy added.
That’s something Louisiana doesn’t do particularly well. While Moret praised the current governor and Legislature for making solid investments in higher education, Louisiana has more colleges for its population than almost any other state — making it difficult to fund the system properly because dollars are spread across the state.
The notion that “educational attainment would equal jobs and growth" has hurt Louisiana, Moret said. Businesses continue to see us as a state whose workforce has low overall levels of schooling — so they look to other states for expansion.
Key takeaways from the presentation: The state needs a long-term effort, with the business community taking a key role, in moving up the "good lists" in various ways.
A complex and convoluted tax system and political squabbles over sales tax collections have been LABI's traditional focus, but the two experts say talent pipelines can make the difference in both the perception and the reality of Louisiana. No state, Moret said, effectively counsels its students, particularly those from low-income families, about college and career readiness.
Many students from better-off families get such counseling at the family dinner table, but it will take many more college- and career-minded young people to fulfill the talent needs and expectations of growing businesses.
“There’s not a state in America that has nailed this yet,” Moret said. “It’s a great opportunity.”