Staving off coastal land loss in Louisiana will take lots of money and lots of manpower. In just the next four years, GNO Inc. expects up to 12,000 new jobs in the so-called “water sector,” like coastal restoration managers and mathematicians who can model water flow.
But there are not enough workers in the region with the skills to fill those jobs. The new University of New Orleans certificate in Coastal Engineering and Science aims to remedy that.
Professor Alex McCorquodale’s Ocean Engineering class is pretty full this semester, with about 40 students in class and streaming his lecture online. McCorquodale likes to use real challenges we face here in Louisiana, and there are plenty.
In class on a recent Tuesday he described his lecture for the evening, “Today we’re going to finish up some of the work on hurricanes and surges," McCorquodale said. "I want to talk a little bit about the hurricane protection and some of the reasons and mechanics for the failures after Katrina.”
McCorquodale has worked in coastal engineering for many years, developing wastewater treatment models used across the world; researching the impact of stormwater runoff in Lake Pontchartrain, and helping with the state’s Coastal Master Plan.
Ryan Waldron already has a degree in engineering from LSU. He enrolled in UNO’s program thinking the certificate might help him land state, local and private contracts, “What I’m really hoping to get from the program is really the word: ‘coastal engineer,’” says Waldron. “I have the civil engineering master’s degree, where I studied the stuff, but a lot of clients actually require that you have someone on staff that has the title of ‘coastal engineer’ to do coastal engineering work.”
That’s an emerging definition, according to UNO Program director Malay Ghose-Hajra.
With the $6.8 billion from the BP oil settlement coming down the line, and the state’s investment in its coastal master plan, contractors need people who understand things like geomorphology, sediment transport, dredging, and designing dams and spillways.
Ghose-Hajra says a study conducted by GNO Inc. asked those contractors: “Would you hire students who had knowledge of these courses?” He says, “They all said ‘Yes,’ and the next question was ‘When would you want to hire these students?’ and their answer was now.”
Students may get that knowledge in a variety of ways, the certificate just puts all of those topics under one heading.
Robin Barnes of GNO Inc. says until now, contractors had to send their workers out of state to learn skills like dredging, the digging out of deeper channels for ships to pass.
She points out the window from the 34th floor in her downtown New Orleans office. “We’re looking at the Mississippi River right now. The students in the UNO certificate program will be able to utilize their skills by dredging in the river,” says Barnes.
UNO’s program is the second of its kind in the country. The other program is at Old Dominion University in Virginia, but it focuses on sandy beaches rather than Louisiana’s muddy delta.
Engineer Amer Tufail already has a master’s in civil engineering. He’s one of about 20 professionals enrolled and owns New Orleans-based Greenpoint Engineering. It has designed flood control programs and conducted studies on flooding and drainage for St. Tammany and Ascension Parishes.
The certificate reinforces his case for getting local contracts rather than outside firms.
He would also like to hire some of his classmates. “There’s an accountability that comes with being from here,” says Tufail. “It’s not to say that we don’t value the expertise that has been proven elsewhere and can be applied here. But having a sense of ownership in the kind of work we do, I think it’s important.”
He says the challenges of rising sea levels and eroding wetlands exist around the world. “The real approach here has to be to develop a center of learning, a center of expertise, that’s based in Louisiana, that goes beyond a certificate program. That may be graduate level studies, funded research programs, that apply the real world experience of rebuilding the coast,” says Tufail.
Ghose-Hajra says the program represents a shift, bringing more environmental science and ecological understanding to engineering the river and coast.
And, yes, the plan is to teach lessons that apply elsewhere, “To provide students with knowledge they can use in any other deltaic area of the world. Like India, Bangladesh, Europe or Canada.”
He hopes the certificate grows into a full-fledged master’s in coastal engineering.
Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.