Guest Viewpoint: Tackling Oklahoma’s workforce challenges
As your Lieutenant Governor, I’ve had the privilege of visiting with countless businesses in all 77 counties.
Most of the time, I’m included in celebrations – welcoming a new company coming to town or breaking ground on an expansion. I’m grateful for the opportunity to celebrate those economic development wins, and I’m particularly excited when those happen in rural Oklahoma.
As I visit with business owners, there is one consistent woe they each share with me: available and qualified workforce. In smaller areas, recruiting workforce has become a vicious cycle of poaching workers from other local businesses, leaving their neighbor with the same challenging hole to fill.
A low unemployment rate is certainly something to celebrate. We recently hit a state record low of 2.7%. This tells us that Oklahomans are working and living our state motto, “Labor Omnia Vincit,” or “Work Conquers All.”
But this — coupled with the number of open jobs and the national and international demand to move to Oklahoma to take advantage of our pro-business environment — leads to a workforce shortage that remains difficult to resolve.
Unprecedented growth in aerospace, advanced manufacturing and our continued dominance in energy have made Oklahoma in-high-demand for business relocation and expansion.
The pipeline of companies considering Oklahoma is at an all-time high, and the list of wins over the past 18 months speaks for itself: Enel, Model 1, CymSTAR, Pratt & Whitney, and several others account for 7,548 new jobs and over $4 billion in investment, with 53% of those wins happening in rural areas.
But the workforce challenge remains, which is why I’m excited to make an impact as the Secretary of Workforce Development. Through this position, I’ll not only be able to continue the positive momentum of business recruitment and expansion, but I’ll also be able to help set our existing businesses up for success by helping to fill quality jobs with quality workers.
We will go about this in a few ways. First, we need to focus on increasing Oklahoma’s labor force participation rate, which is currently at 61.4%. This means that only 61.4% of available workers are currently employed. For comparison, Kansas is at 66.8%.
Getting Oklahomans to work is going to be no small feat, but I’m looking forward to working with the HELP task force to understand barriers to workforce entry for mothers, particularly the cost of childcare.
I also look forward to connecting with the Department of Rehabilitation Services to understand opportunities for Oklahoma’s disabled citizens. Also high on my list is working with re-entry programs for incarcerated workers and veteran re-entry programs.
Our CareerTech system also provides an opportunity for low-cost training and education for the most in-demand jobs in our state. Working with them helps both existing and potential businesses create a workforce pipeline uniquely trained for their specific needs.
We also must invest in public education. In the 2021-2022 school year, 3,460 Oklahoma teachers were emergency certified. This totaled 7.7% of the total teacher population, a massive increase from the mere 0.2% we had in the 2012-2013 school year.
That number is unacceptable. We need to work with teachers to ensure they’re getting the resources and support they need to stay. Oklahoma’s future workforce is sitting in our classrooms, and they deserve a high-quality education from professional educators.
While I wish that was enough, we must look outside the state to fill the workforce gap. Marketing our low cost of living, low tax rates, family values and overall quality of life to recruit workers to Oklahoma is the last piece of the complicated workforce puzzle.
As the Secretary of Workforce Development, I certainly have my work cut out for me, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.
— Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell