Breaking the cycle: How can Lafayette keep young people?

UL Mechanical Engineering Professor Terrence Chambers and a student examine a solar panel at the university's Louisiana Solar Energy Lab. Photo by Doug Douglas, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Lafayette and communities like it across the country face a circular problem. Young people, particularly those with college degrees, are leaving in search of jobs. Employers, meanwhile, are flocking to areas where young people are, bringing the jobs with them.

It poses a looming threat to Lafayette’s workforce and economy, unless leaders can break the cycle.

The Lafayette area had a net loss of more than 700 college grads under 25 from 2017 to 2021, according to UL economist Gary Wagner’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau microdata. That amounts to one in four people under 25 with bachelor’s degrees living in the Lafayette metro area in 2017, according to Census Bureau estimates. 

Lafayette has fared better at retaining young talent than most of the rest of the state, partially because it draws people from areas losing population, says Wagner, but that’s not enough to entirely offset its loss of recent college graduates.

The lack of better job opportunities appears to be a key point of discontent with Lafayette among current college students, says André Breaux, vice president of policy initiatives and governmental affairs at One Acadiana, which is targeting UL students with its latest quality-of-life survey.

Students have generally rated Lafayette’s quality of life as good overall and a desirable place to start families, Breaux says of the survey’s preliminary feedback, but they have pessimistic outlooks on their career advancement opportunities here.

“They can see themselves here when they’re raising their family,” he says. “But as they’re building their career, it’s maybe not as advantageous.”

That presents a long-term problem for the Hub City, as young talent is increasingly seen as a major component of economic growth for cities around the country. While this is not an immediate crisis for businesses locally, young workers are the “battlefront of economic development,” says Breaux, and keeping them in Lafayette is necessary to attract the types of jobs they’re currently leaving the area to find. 

“How we compete going forward, how we position ourselves for more young talent to want to move here and for the existing companies we have to be able to expand here, is with young talent. That is how we compete economically,” Breaux says. “No one is shutting down because we don’t have enough young talent presently. But directionally, we know that needs to be an economic development focus.”

The new First Solar manufacturing plant coming to Iberia Parish is an example of the power that a desirable workforce can have on economic development by bringing employers to the area. First Solar Chief Commercial Officer Georges Antoun says the area’s workforce and its higher education institutions were key to landing the company’s expansion in Acadiana instead of Shreveport.

The potential to develop a specialized local workforce by training students in a simulation of the factory at UL’s Louisiana Solar Energy Lab is a central part of that appeal, according to Antoun.

“We’ll invest there, along with the state, to simulate and graduate folks that are manufacturing engineers, manufacturing technicians,” he says. “So, this is not just a factory, this is a whole thing that academia is involved in, obviously, economic development is involved in, the state is involved in.”

Antoun, who chairs the Dean’s Advisory Council for UL’s College of Engineering, says the company’s new plant should directly create around 700 new jobs, but he expects adjacent businesses will indirectly add thousands more, creating more opportunities for young workers to stay in the area.

“All of this will build an ecosystem that basically will keep young people here,” he says. “At the end of the day, you just need to create good jobs for people to stay here, and really, I’m counting on a lot of people coming back from Houston and working here.”

Election Guide 2023

Quality of Life

Quality of life and opportunity is something young voters say they care a lot about. Read more about how LCG impacts it here.

That could be a tough sell. Earners in Houston make more on average and pay less on housing as a portion of their income than they would in Lafayette, according to UL’s Wagner. In other words, they might need a pretty sweet deal to relocate.

Housing and affordability have long been calling cards for Lafayette’s outreach to employers. But the housing cost advantage has slipped away, potentially because of the prevalence of single-family zoning in the city and the lack of more affordable housing options, says Wagner, but higher incomes in larger metro areas have played a role as well.

“You might say the median house price in Dallas is higher than the median house price here, and that could be true, but the average wage is a lot higher there as well,” Wagner says. “So once you look at the ratio of housing prices to wages, we don't look as good. In fact, we’ve gotten less competitive, especially in the last 10 years.”

For the young people already here, Wagner says addressing housing costs, promoting entrepreneurship and investing in quality-of-life infrastructure are ways for communities to hang on to their young talent.

One Acadiana is targeting the entrepreneurial angle with its Small Business Challenge this fall, which offers up to $100,000 for a creative business concept to fill the Sans Souci Building Downtown.

It’s also inviting the public and local leaders to a Nov. 1 presentation of the findings from its latest quality-of-life survey targeting UL students to help identify other priorities that young people want to see addressed locally.

“We need to know what that population wants to see in their community,” says Breaux. “What their perceptions are about their community and what they want to see from their community to keep them here.”

Still, housing costs and quality-of-life investments remain generally within the purview of Lafayette’s local government, putting them on the ballot this fall as candidates vie for spots on the City and Parish councils, plus the job of mayor-president.

Local leaders have the opportunity to address the young talent exodus, Wagner says, by enabling denser housing options and investing in quality-of-life infrastructure, like pedestrian areas, bikeability and attractive Downtown spaces.

“We know those are amenities younger people place a lot of value on. They are moving to, not necessarily all large metro areas, but they’re moving to metro areas that have good walkability, that kind of blend indoor and outdoor activities,” the economist notes. “Those are all things that we could do better here, but for whatever reason, we have chosen not to.”