When the economy tanked in 2008-09, so did business at Mills Machine Co. in Shawnee. The company laid off half its staff.
Improvements have come each year since, said Chuck Mills, owner and president, and many of the lost workers were replaced. But like many other manufacturing companies, finding skilled employees is difficult.
Mills and others cited workforce development as the major issue impeding their business during the sixth and final Small Business and Small Manufacturer Regional Summit, held Tuesday in Oklahoma City. The events were hosted by Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and the State Chamber of Oklahoma.
Small business owners were invited to raise issues, discuss solutions and provide input for legislation in the coming session. Mills said it was a worthwhile experience and one he wishes more business owners would take advantage of.
“Workforce was the No. 1 issue, and it's everyone's No. 1 issue,” Mills said. “There are people out there looking for a job that don't have a skill.”
If they at least have “soft skills,” such as the desire to work, show up on time and have a good attitude, the workers can be trained, he said. But many high school and college graduates don't have those either, he added.
Lamb said in his tour across the state to meet with small business owners, he heard the same issues in every location, whether it was rural or urban, north or south, east or west. Workforce development is something that needs to be addressed in conjunction with the CareerTech institutions, he added.
“We'll continue to work with CareerTech and bring students in with tours and apprenticeships. I think that will start to develop culturally in the schools the need and desire to develop hard skills and work on soft skills,” Lamb said.
Gordon Andersen, special projects manager at Pelco Products in Edmond, who also attended the summit, said it's often difficult for teachers who may not have experience in manufacturing to expose their students to a possible career in the field. He said it's going to take educators saying, “I want you involved,” and business leaders who take the time to sit down and say, “OK, how do we do that?”
“I'm not opposed to college,” he said. “But I think we've overemphasized college to high school students and haven't done a good enough job guiding them to steer their careers, starting in grade school.”