Magazine article Diversity Employers

City Looks to Students for Economic Boost and Help Building the "New" New Orleans

Magazine article Diversity Employers

City Looks to Students for Economic Boost and Help Building the "New" New Orleans

Article excerpt

Drive down Canal Street, New Orleans' premier thoroughfare, and you can see wrecked buildings, trash bins filled to the brim with debris, and other vestiges of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Look closer and you will also see positive omens, like the "help wanted" sign hanging in the Radio Shack store.

"Don't get me wrong, business is good, but it'll get better when the college kids get back," said store manager Joe Pomfrey, in between programming cell phones and answering questions from bustling shoppers.

With tourism crippled and other industries still on the mend from the flood, the nearly 34,000 students that resumed classes at Dillard, Xavier, Tulane and other city-based universities in January will play a role in boosting the city's immediate economy, but could also help sculpt a new New Orleans. By twists of fate, the "Big Easy"--world-recognized for its partying and pageantry--could be poised to become the "Big Campus."

New Orleans' population, down from a pre-Katrina 462,000 to an estimated 144,000, is spiking as students flock to their colleges after a semester's absence forced by the flood. Economic development officials and others see their potential as part of the city's long-term recovery.

"If the investment is made, higher education will produce the human capital needed for the future of a new New Orleans," said Michael L. Lomax, former president of Dillard, now president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund. "This is an opportunity for the city to value something that it hasn't valued--education."

Area businesses already are salivating at the thought of student employees, and are ready to compensate them. A fast-food staple such as Burger King, which before Katrina paid $5.15 an hour, now guarantees weekly paychecks of at least $250, as well as a $6,000 sign-on bonus.

Employment-hungry students, such as Dillard senior Isaiah Stewart, are ready to cash in.

"I'm the oldest of five children and right now, three of us are in college. My parents don't have any extra money to send to any of us. Plus, FEMA hasn't kicked in the way I thought it would," said Stewart, a native of Richmond, Calif., speaking of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "So I'm looking for a job so I can have a little spending money."

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Stewart said he had security experience and would check into working at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel, which is serving as Dillard's campus this term. The hotel said it planned to hold a job fair to link students like Stewart with part-time work.

"Hey, it's a check and the job offers free garage parking. That'll save me $165 a semester," said Stewart, referring to the cost of a Dillard parking permit. "Whatever job I do get, I'm just believing that God will provide, because He's always working it out for me."

For Brenda Gilbert, by day a public health/physical therapy major at Dillard and by night a package handler for UPS, the opportunity to work isn't just a chance to help the city rebound, but a good occasion to rebuild her life.

Gilbert, a New Orleans native and a junior, said managing the school's volleyball squad was the only job she held while in school. But with Dillard's varsity sports cancelled until fall, and her Seventh Ward home caked with brown muck or covered in musty mildew, she is counting on the income from her part-time job.

"I need money to pay for school," and "to pay for necessities because I lost everything, and I have to start replacing everything I lost," said Gilbert.

She started working at the UPS distribution center in December and has been promoted to a supervisory role.

"I was offered my job on the spot," Gilbert said, noting that many employers are willing to work around class schedules.

"The jobs are there for them," said Pomfrey, the Radio Shack manager. …

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