Oklahoma Assesses Current and Future Business Environment

By US Daily Review Staff.

Oklahoma business owners and executives who responded to the FallinForBusiness.com business climate survey conducted by the Governor’s Office, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the Oklahoma Business Roundtable, reported hiring in 2012 to exceed national projections, with 37 percent expecting to hire new workers. When the time frame is spread out to three years, 69 percent of Oklahoma businesses expect to increase the size of their workforce. Combine this with the 51 percent of businesses upgrading or expanding, 28 percent adding locations and more than 60 percent adding new products or services – and the direction is clear. Oklahoma companies are on a steady upward growth curve.

In spite of this overall optimism, up to 79 percent of businesses in a variety of industry categories rate the availability of skilled labor as fair or poor, making these the number one most difficult jobs to fill.

Governor Fallin recognized the priority challenge posed by workforce issues when she announced the survey results. “Our businesses still need us to make sure our policies help build a highly skilled, educated workforce,” she said. “They told us they need certified and degreed people. We have responded with programs such as Complete College America, matching employees with jobs at OKJobMatch.com and developing a program to help get our returning military in the job pipeline.”

Does Oklahoma have a skilled labor gap? Economic developers and many businesses say, “Yes,” but look at the challenge differently.

The Southwest Oklahoma Impact Coalition, SOIC, will pilot a Career Pathways project in Duncan Public Schools beginning this fall. That project might not have moved forward without the statistical validation provided by the FallinForBusiness study.

Marilyn Feaver, SOIC’s executive director, says the business climate survey data validates their perceptions from the more than 500 interviews they conducted with regional businesses from 2005-2008. “We talked to hundreds of business owners in southwest Oklahoma about barriers and opportunities for growth and expansion. These interviews identified workforce preparation as our first priority,” she said. “But then along came the recession, and while we expected everything to change, our businesses continued to report difficulty finding trained workers.” FallinForBusiness survey respondents agree, with 70 percent rating access to trained workers as absolutely critical or important.

While respondents cited the quality of the college, university and CareerTech systems high among Oklahoma’s top business climate strengths, they reported lower numbers for access to job training programs. Of the business owners and executives responding, 50 percent graded access to programs statewide as excellent or good, and 47 percent rated access to local programs excellent or good.

SOIC’s Career Pathways project includes integrated education and training programs that develop an individual’s core academic, technical and employability skills and provides them with continuous education and training so they are prepared to advance to higher levels of education and employment.

The Career Pathways project resolution highlights these outcomes:

  • High school students are better prepared to make informed choices.
  • More students graduate from high school.
  • Students earn higher scores on standardized academic, career and technical tests.
  • More students make the transition from secondary to postsecondary.
  • Employers gain access to a larger pool of qualified workers.

Feaver believes there is a clear disconnect between employers and education/training providers. “Career education must start early in a child’s education so that by the time a student is in high school the relevancy of education will be connected to family-sustaining jobs and careers,” she said.

“We are looking at the results of the FallinForBusiness survey in detail and will use them to validate our work and to encourage employers to support the Career Pathways project – first in Duncan and southwest Oklahoma, and eventually statewide,” Feaver said. “Based on what they said in the survey, we expect huge benefits for employers and employees in all stages of their careers.”

SOIC represents colleges and universities, career technology centers, tribal governments, chambers of commerce and individuals. SOIC’s mission is to reinforce and grow wealth in the Southwest Quadrant of Oklahoma by maximizing and coordinating workforce and economic development opportunities through a collaborative process.

A similar organization, Central Oklahoma Regional Development (CORD) was organized to enhance economic growth and development in Central Oklahoma. CORD’s ten community members include Calumet, El Reno, Geary, Hinton, Kingfisher, Minco, Okarche, Piedmont, Union City and Watonga. Their combined efforts help provide businesses with economic development resources, including a talented workforce.

Gene Pflughoft is CORD’s executive director. Along with Feaver, he welcomed the opportunity provided by the FallinForBusiness survey. “CORD promises its communities proactive business retention and expansion, to work on each member city’s targeted issues, to provide a direct connection with state leaders and to assist area schools in developing an available workforce,” he said. “The survey was a big help to us.”

Pflughoft says the FallinForBusiness survey came at exactly the right time for CORD companies. “Our member businesses get together for weekly meetings where they can talk about what they need. Each meeting focuses in on an issue, whether it’s employee development or motivation,” he said. “We pushed the survey in these groups. It was an ideal opportunity for them to report the challenges they face and the things they need help with. We knew this was something we could do to get our businesses heard, and we will continue to use the data in our programs going forward.”

Pflughoft is not surprised that more than 70 percent of survey respondents cite attracting/recruiting talent as absolutely critical or important. “Canadian County is the fastest growing county in Oklahoma. Business is booming,” he said. “With our growth, demand for good people with technical skills is incredible, and the need impacts every skills category. In addition to oil and gas, we have great opportunities in wind and CNG. Our companies need CDL licensed drivers, electricians, hvac people, electricians, plumbers and backhoe operators – people with real skills.”

He agrees with survey respondents who cited an almost equal need for people with Bachelor’s degrees and CareerTech certification. “Right now,” he says, “Canadian County has more jobs than qualified workers. We have the training resources in place, through our colleges and CareerTech centers. Classrooms are full all the time, and a lot of our companies provide training programs. Our challenge is to find the people.”

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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