Gulf Coast Sees Exodus of Workers

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Gulf Coast employers are facing a post-Katrina labor problem — poaching. Firms from around the country are recruiting workers from the storm-ravaged region. Workers are leaving the Gulf Coast, enticed by offers of new homes and other incentives.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A competition for talent after Katrina is our subject as we focus on the workplace this Wednesday. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is laying off up to 3,000 city employees because the city can't afford them anymore, but some other people in the hurricane's path are in demand. As some Gulf Coast businesses struggle to reopen, out-of-state firms are trying to snatch their workers. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

In the business world, it's called poaching. That's certainly how Skipper Renaldi(ph) saw it. Renaldi spent years as a contractor in New Orleans. Today he runs the Associated Building Contractors chapter there and tries to help local companies find work. A few days after Katrina hit, search firms began calling him, looking to hire construction supervisors displaced by the hurricane.

Mr. SKIPPER RENALDI (Associated Building Contractors): I would say it's, you know, two to three to four a day of headhunters calling, looking for project managers and project execs and project superintendents to send into places like Miami and Tampa and Orlando. And I think, you know, to a great extent, you know, there are a lot of people, unfortunately, that want to capitalize on somebody else's hardship.

LANGFITT: Construction workers are in heavy demand because of the nation's housing boom. But outside firms are targeting other Gulf Coast workers as well, including doctors, lab researchers and nurses. Dr. Alan Miller is a health sciences administrator at Tulane University in New Orleans. He says competitors are dangling incentives to lure away his staff.

Dr. ALAN MILLER (Tulane University): We heard, you know, almost within the, you know, first week of people who were receiving offers, `Don't worry, you can move your whole program here. We'd love to have you, and these are all the things that we're going to give you.' We heard of offers to whole research groups that, `If you come here, we'll build a building for you.'

LANGFITT: Tulane is operating out of Houston while it works to reopen back home. Miller says he resents institutions trying to poach staff when his university is in crisis.

Dr. MILLER: I come off very indignant and very angry, and I point out to the people what they're doing.

LANGFITT: Miller says employees have remained loyal so far, but his colleague, Larry Baliet(ph), is having a harder time holding on to staff.

Mr. LARRY BALIET (Human Resources, Tulane University Hospital): Other hospitals are offering very generous bonuses and they're covering expenses for relocations.

LANGFITT: Baliet oversees human resources for Tulane's affiliated hospitals. He says he's already lost 45 nurses, three pharmacists and three technicians.

Mr. BALIET: One of the primary come-ons is that they promise housing, and when you're talking to a nurse or medical technologist that's lost their home, housing becomes an important issue.

LANGFITT: Like other states, Louisiana faces a shortage of nurses, so Baliet recruited from all over the country. Now his hospitals are paying a price.

Mr. BALIET: About 40 percent of the nurses that we hired at Tulane University Hospital came from outside the state of Louisiana, so many of them don't have ties to New Orleans or Louisiana. Consequently, many of them are going back home and finding jobs in other states. What was a very sound recruiting strategy prior to Katrina has now backfired on us.

LANGFITT: Organizations recruiting Gulf Coast workers say they're just helping those left jobless by the storm while filling labor needs in other regions. Rick Beasley runs South Florida Workforce. It's a non-profit which is trying to connect displaced laborers with training programs and local construction companies. Beasley says if workers from the Gulf Coast decide to stay in south Florida, that's great. If not, he says they can always go back home and help with rebuilding.

Mr. RICK BEASLEY (South Florida Workforce): You know, someone said, `Well, that's, you know, stealing other citizens,' and it's like, well, no, what we're trying to do is that those citizens who right now have no way to go or nowhere to go and they really don't know what to do, what we're saying here, Miami's an option.

LANGFITT: No one knows how many businesses are actually recruiting workers from the Gulf Coast or how many are accepting their offers. But Renaldi, who runs the Building Contractors chapter, says he would hate to see outsiders succeed in dismantling the local labor force, especially because there will be so much reconstruction work in southeastern Louisiana.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in New Orleans.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.

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