PLAQUEMINE, La. (BRPROUD) — For years, keeping young talented employees has been a goal Louisiana has been striving for.

Some progress has been made, but a new workforce academy changes the way businesses think about recruitment.

“I felt like I got accepted into college,” White Castle High Junior Braylon Thomas expressed.

“We got closer. We got to know each other and express our feelings,” added his classmate Leslie Burnstein as he sat next to Junior Ja’Riyah Morris.

“I can’t believe I got accepted knowing that it was a bunch of people that applied with me,” said Krislyn Williams.

(Left to right) Simmons, Parent Alexis Williams, Students Braylon Thomas Leslie Burnstein, Ja’Riyah Morris, Krislyn Williams, Mentor Conrad Davenport

These young minds have their eyes set on the prize, one thing in common is that they are attending Dow Chemical’s Leadership Academy.

It all started with the founder of T. Simmons and Company, Terry Simmons. What he works on with this initiative stems from the brain drain theory.

“There have been a number of studies on the brain drain and the dynamic of young people leaving the state for adjacent markets that they perceive may be more progressive or their more opportunities in the workforce,” he explained.

Simmons said parts of their decisions are influenced by modern trends. It’s a simple case of ‘out with the old and in with the new.’

“We’re dealing with young people that have a different expectation of what they want from a workplace experience than maybe their parents or grandparents did,” he said. “It’s called a gig culture. So, they can deliver for DoorDash or they can walk dogs with WAG. It gives young people an opportunity to pursue what they’re passionate about and gig on the side and still earn a livable wage.”

To close the talent gap he said preparation can be the missing link.

“We have to assess that talent pool and determine how we build the ecosystem around those communities that get those young people into the pipeline with a marketable skill that aligns with the regional economy,” Simmons stated.

Instead of being reactive and trying to bring back working youth to the state of Louisiana, Simmons said, we need to focus on our untapped resources. That means investing in what we already have here.

“We don’t have to go looking outside the state when it’s all right here. And a lot of these people are lifers, right? They were born here, and all their families here. Why not get them poured in and they create their families and this generation,” Dow Leadership Academy (DLA) Mentor Conrad Davenport.

“There are enough people who stay here, and particularly in predominantly minority communities, where the challenges may be different… I say, if we want to grow a workforce, we have to groom a workforce,” added Simmons.

One way is through the Leadership academy sponsored by DOW. It’s a long-term investment made by the company.

“The young people are the direct beneficiary. At some point, the company becomes the indirect beneficiary,” Simmons explained. “They should lead with wanting to make sure that the community is whole in that regard first, and if they do that, what they’ll see is that the talent pool will augment, it’ll grow.”

It began and continues here with intimate groups of students from White Castle High.

“It’s to educate young people about, you know, what careers are behind those gates, the education that they need, the soft skills that they need, and then making sure that they have the resources to pursue that,” he said. “One of the biggest benefits is not only that it drives young people into the workforce pipeline, but it also spurs diversity because these young people are. From very, very diverse backgrounds, socioeconomically racially and you name it.”

The students all live in communities not too far from Dow’s Plaquemine site.

“I learned that you had to make more eye contact when you communicate and make sure you have a very strong, nice, strong presence,” Morris said.

“We learned a lot of leadership skills like taking control. Learning to, like, you know, back down when it’s time to stand up for what’s right,” described Thomas.

Driving forces in the academy are beloved yet feared mentors.

“His name is Condrad,” said Thomas while smiling.

“To me, his role is to guide us, to be there for us to correct us when we’re wrong. We have problems he’ll be there for us. He’s a helping hand and ear when we need it,” expressed Williams.

The mentor plays a role in cultivating the next generation.

“It’s like gaining a whole bunch of little brothers and little sisters. It’s like, okay, I get it because I was your age and now being able to pour back into them, you know, you want to be firm, but you also want them to still open up to,” said Davenport. “Most communities don’t really realize that every child is at risk.”

So far these academies in the past have been fruitful, as a result, more are slated to open in other places.

“The data was off the charts. So there was a 100% graduation rate from high school. 90% went into some post-secondary program. 80% went into a STEM-related field,” stated Simmons.

“A lot of them wanted to become operators. A lot of them were looking at engineering, some of the information technology fields, and even medicine. A lot of that they learned from being around us. They also learned that they can come to a manufacturing facility and do some of those roles,” added Davenport.

The students said they have lectures, and hands-on activities and they get to travel.

“With DLA-Dow Leadership people are noticing us and noticing our talents. Especially, when you come from a small town, a lot of people don’t see things that DOW leadership, you know, shows us,” said Burnstein.

“I feel like I’ve grown so much. I’ve come out of my shell even more. I’ve learned how to express myself without getting upset,” added Williams.

“So for here, this is the way to put yourself out there. To just to be seen,” said Morris.

Soon they will start learning about careers at Dow.

“When they triumph, you want to be the first one to stand up on the desk and go, yes! Because you’re super excited they got it. They got that one piece,” expressed Davenport. “And then you keep building on it and building on it. When the last group graduated, like there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, me included because you saw the culmination of all that work.”

Simmons said that nourishing seeds like what’s been done with Dow could be a game changer in Louisiana industries because eventually, forests will grow.

“The goal is I mean, I would like to see us partner with as many of the larger employers in Louisiana as possible  so that we have these academies in all 64 parishes.”

“We’re trying to rebuild and trying to get everything going in the right direction. Terry’s [Simmons] done an amazing job of that. But, this year is going to be better than the last one,” added Davenport.

To learn more about the academy, click here.

For those attending White Castle High School, the next open enrollment is in 2024.