I went looking for good conversation from people who’ve lived this past year at the center of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and have both a personal perspective on employment and the ability to tell their own story. In both scheduled appointments and mealtime conversations I discovered a story that isn’t being told in the general media.
12:30 p.m., Bacco (a Brennan’s restaurant near W in the French Quarter on Chartres)
Sitting at the bar for lunch in this high-end bistro, you wouldn’t know they were hurting for tourists. It was busy and David, the bartender, was sharp, efficient, humorous and knowledgeable. He came to New Orleans six months earlier from Connecticut to work as a supervisor for a contractor working on one of the levees.
At 40 years old, David looks and acts like an accountant with a personality. A college graduate with a dozen jobs under his belt, he was still looking for his career muse. When his construction employer stopped paying his workers, David quickly picked up the job at Brennan’s.
He said he was going to get back into the construction game at the first opportunity. Looking around the restaurant it was obvious David wasn’t the only recently arrived employee—people are coming here looking for work.
3 p.m., University of New Orleans Downtown Campus
Lee Crean, the university’s director of workforce initiatives and partnerships, has been in his current post only a year, but he brought up several points that I’m still mulling over:
Even before Katrina, most Fortune 500 employers had moved the bulk of their operations and facilities out of Louisiana. The "employment brand" of the Gulf region and especially the New Orleans environs, at least in the minds of many outside the region, is extremely negative.
The demographic changes in New Orleans’ population are truly staggering. From 600,000 before Katrina to 250,000 after. Racial and ethnic shifts are also significant, with some speculation that the Latino population may soon account for one-quarter of the new New Orleans. One offset, however, is that a large contingent of people has come back to the region but not returned to New Orleans, instead moving to more viable suburbs like Jefferson Parish, Baton Rouge, etc. One bank recognized the trend and supported vans and buses to accommodate the longer commutes.
Image is everything, and when one of the first conventions returned to the city, many of the hotels imported hundreds of their more experienced personnel from elsewhere in the U.S. to ensure the customer experience of their guests would be high.
8 a.m., uptown
Bill Rouselle is president of a public relations firm Bright Moments, which is intimately tied to the city, the mayor, the African-American community, the bring-people-back movement, the Center for Community Economic Development and a whole lot more. He gave us an hour of his time and a lifetime of insights to think about.
"In the end, it is about the jobs," Bill said when we sat down in his offices on Harmony and Magazine for an interview. "But," he continued, "there are no jobs without infrastructure, and right now it is all about infrastructure."
"You need reliable, low-cost electricity, clean water, accessible health care, a decent educational system to send your kids to, and a place to stay you can afford," he explained. "Otherwise, no one will come back."
There was a point deep into the conversation where Bill responded to a question about how employers would find folks to come back. He didn’t hesitate when he said, "The churches. We’ve partnered with them already to network with families directly and through career fairs and have helped employers make at least 400 hires as a result."
To me, Bill brought home the notion that Louisiana is not now, nor likely to be any time soon, the home of many Fortune-type corporate headquarters. Instead, there are 89,000 businesses in the state that gross more than $1 million annually (on average), and that still adds up to a lot of money even today. Helping these smaller firms with incentives in return for them offering their (average of five to 10) employees "asset-building" benefits was one of the more interesting social engineering concepts I had heard. The definition of asset building included:
Home down payment assistance.
Time off for training and education.
On-site day care assistance.
Financial and career counseling.
Dinner, Paul K’s
Sitting at the bar and feasting on an appetizer of a Cajun version of a Maryland crab cake, I struck up a conversation with my bartender, Yvette, an eighth-generation New Orleanean. Just a year before Katrina, she got married and built a house in the Bywater district.
"We built the house on stilts, 10 feet above the street, just in case we got a flood ... and we did," she said. "Unfortunately, it was14 feet on my block."
Undaunted, she and her husband spent a hundred nights lugging material in pitch-black conditions (no electricity) after work, ripping out the sheetrock in their home and replacing nearly everything on the first floor. Yvette had the unmistakable aura of someone who had been tested and wasn’t found wanting ... and knew it. With a few like Yvette, you could rebuild an entire city.
Traveling around the city and parishes.
We should be hearing more stories about people like Tom Zaunbrecher, a Spherion franchise owner who is having the best year ever in permanent placement. Then we would learn more than the facts that his employees are busy putting semi-skilled and skilled labor to work or that the average hourly rates in the state are up as much as 40 percent. Within days of Katrina and then Hurricane Rita, Tom’s office was flooded 4 feet up, and he brought friends in to help him gut the walls and rework the electricity.
Tom was up and running via cell phones by September 12, helping old and new clients get back on their feet with workers he was able to find and bus in from miles away. Six months later his offices had to be totally redone professionally, but by then many companies that never before gave him a chance to show what he could do were now loyal customers who appreciated that he was there when they needed him. Tom’s employees were visibly proud they made a difference to their clients during the toughest of times.
Then there’s Mark Rose, general manager of NOLA.com, a New Orleans job board that is a part of Advance Publications and a part of the Newhouse family publishing empire (which also includes the Times Picayune). NOLA.com’s business has soared since Katrina, but it is Mark’s back story that underlines the company’s success. (He just returned to his pre-Katrina home this week.)
A year ago, within hours of the hurricane, Mark and his wife took care of their first priority—getting their kids into a new school. A combination of networking connections, cold calls and persistence had them signing up their kids in an undamaged neighboring parish school several miles from the edge of the damage.
Then, while helping the newspaper and his job board relocate to stay in business and keep the community informed, he and his wife searched for a home to buy, tracked down real estate agents and lawyers, got inspections conducted and arranged for financing under the most trying circumstances.
I think there is a back story here in the Big Easy that neither the media nor New Orleaneans themselves seem to know how to get out. It has everything to do with their creating and even attracting a future market for employers and the jobs they bring. It’s all about the quality of the people that employers everywhere want to hire.
I spent three days in New Orleans learning from people who came back, never left or just showed up and not only did their job, but did everything else they had to do to make their families, their neighborhood and the larger community viable. Their back stories are lost in the images of devastation that most media would have us look at over and over.
The people I see in large numbers in New Orleans today aren’t letting any of their anger over insurance or disappointment with various local and federal agencies slow them down. One step at a time, one decision at a time, one nail at a time, they are simply putting their houses in order--literally and figuratively.
A new mix of age, gender, race and ethnicity willingly investing their sweat equity without any guarantees is claiming the "new" New Orleans. It’s happening in the downtown, uptown, the wards, the Bywater, the Westend and in all the surrounding parishes. It is these back stories about the can-do attitude of people who are transforming their region that impressed me most.