Last year, Gov. Mary Fallin launched the Oklahoma Works program, OU President David Boren called for a statewide initiative to raise teacher salaries and the Daily Oklahoman produced a ‘Help Wanted’ series detailing the state’s shortage of skilled workers.
These three actions highlighted problems in Oklahoma’s education and workforce environments. The shortage of workers, particularly in engineering, health care, manufacturing and information technology, is an issue technical schools, universities and business organizations have been working to remedy.
“The skilled labor shortage is not only an Oklahoma problem, it’s a national concern,” according to Pam Ehlers, Oklahoma State University’s Career Services Director. “Largely, it’s a problem of supply and demand. The increases in the energy, construction and aviation sectors in Oklahoma have created a skilled labor shortage. The decrease and layoffs in the energy sector may level out the shortage of skilled labor for the short term; however, the average American skilled worker is over 50 years of age, so the shortage will not go away anytime soon.”
By 2020, 64 percent of Oklahoma jobs will require post-secondary education, although by that time, only 37 percent of adults are expected to have any level of post-secondary education.
“We are experiencing a silver tsunami with our retiring baby boomers,” says Denise Reid, executive director of Mosaic and Workforce for the Tulsa Regional Chamber. “There are a couple of issues with what is happening. One, baby boomers are the largest generation. Our supply and demand is off with our incoming talent pipeline.”
“Two, American companies built our retiring workforce. They trained and developed workers to do a majority of the jobs. Employers require ready-made workers today which means potential employees must have some form of post-secondary training, which could be a certificate or credential, or an associate or bachelor’s degree or higher.”
Oklahoma lags behind in producing enough people who have college degrees or professional certificates.
“One very noticeable change in today’s work environment, compared to that of 10 years ago, is the sophistication of work processes due to technology and, thus, the need for employees not only with good technical skills but with higher levels of cognitive processing,” says Stillwater’s Meridian Technology Center Superintendent Douglas Major.
Major noted, “At one time, many employers could accommodate individuals who had less than a high school diploma. Today, virtually all employees need to have some form of post-secondary education.”
Research has shown that 40 percent of Oklahoma’s high school graduates must take remedial classes in college. This statistic is one motivator driving Boren’s call for a bipartisan movement to place a teacher salary hike on the ballot for a statewide vote. This initiative, Boren said, would help Oklahoma compete with surrounding states and would involve a one cent sales tax increase, raising $615 million a year.
Oklahoma currently ranks 49th in per student funding, and the state’s share of funding per student has dropped from 50 percent to 16 percent in the last 40 years, Boren noted in an Oct. 2015 letter to the editor in The Oklahoman.
“Education, equity and opportunity are a big deal,” said Reid. “This is not popular but everyone should have access to a quality school, teacher and education. Kids need to have hands-on experiential learning and understand our fast-paced work world. Kids graduating in the next five to ten years will be going into jobs that don’t exist today. The way we teach and learn needs to be able to move at the speed of change. We are lagging in this area and have been for some time.”
Gov. Fallin’s Oklahoma Works program seeks to better prepare students for the workforce by aligning education and workforce needs and finding solutions to the skills gap.
According to Major, “Oklahoma is not alone in this challenge. The skills gap is a conversation in nearly every state and even in other countries. Traditionally, the education industry as a whole has not been as nimble in the change process as it could be, due largely to governance issues. One benefit that we have in the CareerTech system is our flexibility to modify our curriculum fairly rapidly in order to adjust to the changing needs of our customers–businesses needing to hire skilled employees.”