Stillwater News Press

October 30, 2013

State official: Skills gap hurts Oklahoma economy

By Chris Day
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — As the nation’s economy grows so will Stillwater’s, Payne County’s and Oklahoma’s, an Oklahoma Department of Commerce official said Monday.

It’s a new phenomena for Oklahoma, Deputy Director of Economic and Workforce policy Diedre Myers told those attending the annual Stillwater Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Summit in the Oklahoma State University’s Student Union Ballroom.

“Oklahoma was actually the fourth state to recover from the recession,” Myers said. “In terms of getting the jobs that we lost from the recession back.”

The state’s unemployment rate tumbled as manufacturing and the aerospace industry revived. The state enjoyed healthy job growth in 2011 and 2012.

Job growth tailed off in 2013 as most of the state’s skilled labor force found jobs.

“We don’t have labor slack in Oklahoma. Those people who have a knowledge, skill or ability that is market demanded are employed,” Myers said.

Oklahoma’s skilled labor force is employed. When supply of skilled workers is low and demand is high, wages go up. In other states, the supply for skilled workers is high and demand is low, wages are lower. Those states are more attractive to potential employers now, she said.

“We accelerated very quickly out of the recession, but what we are finding now is business can’t find the labor they need. So they are not moving that activity to Oklahoma. They are taking it to other market areas,” she said.

Oklahoma is developing a comprehensive economic development strategy. Identifying the skills Oklahoma’s industries need and instilling those skills in the state’s workforce is an important part of the state’s strategy, she said.

“We have half of our state with firms not meeting their full productive value because they can’t find the labor they need,” Myers said.

Nearly 50 percent of the new jobs being created between 2010 and 2020 in Oklahoma will require some type of post-secondary training — industry certificates, union apprenticeship or an associate’s degree. Thirty percent of those jobs will require the employee to hold at least bachelor’s degree.

Forty-six percent of Oklahomans age 25 or older have a high school degree or less. Only 23 percent of Oklahomans age 25 or older hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

“We have significant gaps there. It becomes the number one reason why people are not in the labor force because there is not a job that fits with their knowledge, skills and abilities,” Myers said.

Some employers may fill openings with less-skilled workers, but it hurts their productivity, she said.

“Oklahoma really added jobs until 2013. All of a sudden our employment numbers really leveled off,” she said. “We have an economy that is trying to churn forward with innovation and grow, but we don’t have the labor supply to meet the demand.”

Oklahoma State University Regents Professor of Economics Dan Rickman also discussed Oklahoma’s economy at the summit.

He focused on the nuts and bolts of Oklahoma’s and Stillwater’s economies — unemployment, building permits, wages, sales tax collections.

His findings agreed with Myers’ assessment. Oklahoma’s economy once red hot economy has cooled off. The state’s economy will grow as the nation’s economy does, he said.