Despite what civic, trade and government leaders tell us, Lafayette's #1 industry is not petroleum, health care, retail, or hospitality.

According to the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, the total employment in our parish is 107,456.  The largest employers are as follows:

Industry Percent Est'd Employment
Health Care 13.00% 13,969
Retail 11.70% 12,572
Mining 11.00% 11,820
Hospitality 9.88% 10,616

But look at this pie chart from the LEDA website, and ask yourself, what's missing?

Well, UL employs 1,828.  The Lafayette Parish School Board employs another 4,414.  That's a total of 6,242, right there.  But we need to also include SLCC, LTC, Remington, and parochial & private schools.  I'm going to (very) conservatively assume that those industries add another 1,000 employees, so now we have about 7,200 employees, or 6.7% of the workforce.

Yet, education isn't on the pie chart at all.  Presumably, education is lumped in with Government.  But the private, parochial and for-profit groups aren't governmental.  Where are they?

The actual numbers for education, however, are much larger than 7,200.  To understand, consider Mining, aka petroleum. Not everyone who works in oil & gas is pumping stuff out of the ground.  The Lafayette energy sector employs janitors, accountants, cooks, lawyers, nurses, and many others.  That's a critical insight:  the pie chart is not meant to be a survey of local professions, it is not a breakdown of the skill sets we need.

No, its purpose is to understand the importance of each industry to the local economy, regardless of who does what. 

If the oil & gas industry were to drop by half, from 11% to 5.5%, all other employment sectors would see roughly a 5.5% decrease in activity.  Then consider that if oil drops by half, we should lose 5.5% of, say, all secretaries in the parish.  But that's not true of the secretaries in the oil patch.  They will not decrease by 5.5%, but by 50%.  That's because within a sector jobs are directly connected, regardless of the job description.

This concept also applies to student employment, particularly in higher ed. Regardless of what jobs our students are doing, and in which sectors, their work is completely connected to the presence of, and the size of, the college.  In fact, if a UL student works in a restaurant in order to go to school, her job is more tightly connected to education, than it is to hospitality. 

Understand that students are generally low-skilled labor, and so their employment is highly fungible.  Since a student's real interest is in education, if a student loses her job in a restaurant, she will immediately take up work elsewhere, in another sector if necessary.

So if the hospitality industry drops by 50%, students working in that sector will not suffer a 50% unemployment rate, they will just move on.  But if higher education drops by 50%, students will leave town, they will move on to other colleges.  When higher education drops by 50%, college student employment drops by 50% as well.

For these reasons, to accurately gauge the employment impact of higher education, we need to consider student employment as if the students worked in education.  This is one of the major reasons that higher education has a much larger economic multiplier than other industries:  for every dollar spent by a university, the ultimate impact is seven-fold.  Education, particularly higher education, is an economic windfall.

Now, let's look at the employment numbers of higher education students.  UL's enrollment generally hovers around 16K.  SLCC has 3,500.  If you add in the other higher education facilities in the parish, let's say we're looking at 22K students in higher education.

To obtain useful information on employment statistics among college students, I had to go back a few years to this 2001 Upromise study.  The study cites trends in student employment over a 15-year period, so I was able to extrapolate by assuming a straight-line trend.  From those estimates, about 60% of college students work, 13% of them full-time, in order to go to college.  13% x 22,000 = 2,860 full-time employees.  If we assume the part-time employees are working 20 hours per week , then that is 47% x 22,000 students x 1/2 time = 5,170 full-time equivalent employees.  Add them to the 7,200 above, and we get 15,230.

That's 14% of the Lafayette workforce.  That's larger than healthcare by over 1200 employees-- and medicine is supposed to be the #1 industry in town. 

But education is even larger than that, because we left out numerous companies and individuals who are also in the business of education.  Those include services in professional development & continuing professional education, technical training, tutoring services, kindergartens, preschools, day care, music lessons, art lessons, dance lessons, sports training, and a myriad of others.

Education is even more important than that, much more so.  To illustrate, let's assume that my calculations shouldn't include anything but the 7,200 employees at the beginning of the article, that education represents only 6.7% of workforce.

It wouldn't change a thing.  Education would still be our #1 industry.

Think about it:  if you cut all of those 7,200 jobs, then all the other sectors would drop by 6.7%...  for today.

But in a few years, it would devastate the local economy.  Without education, particularly higher education, almost all of the other sectors would decline rapidly.  Higher education certainly generates the professionals for all of those industries; but more to the point, college towns attract those professionals in the first place, regardless of where they went to college.

Would Lafayette have recruited sufficient patients, nurses, therapists, doctors-- and particularly, specialists-- to grow five large hospitals (including a public teaching facility) and several specialty hospitals,  without the University here?  Could Maurice Heymann have built the Oil Center without UL nearby?  Would retail sales have flourished here, without a rich lode of college graduates and their incomes?  Even the hospitality industry, which requires many low-skilled jobs in our hotels and restaurants, still relies heavily on UL athletic events, lectures and conferences at the Cajundome, sophisticated businesses which attract salesmen and consultants, and the the rich cultural life that surrounds UL.

Going even deeper,  would Lafayette have the entrepreneurial and civic-minded culture it has, without UL?  Would we remotely approach the quality of life that we enjoy here, without the University? 

Where would Lafayette be, without education, without The University of Louisiana?

It has been said, "If Lafayette is the Hub, UL is the Axle."  To truly understand our economy, to help it grow, we need to revise our thinking, and our priorities.  We need to begin focusing more of our resources on our #1 industry.

We need to focus on education.