A man from Illinois called a national talk radio show the other day and said he was fed up with his home state. He's contemplating a move to either Oklahoma or Texas because he likes our politics.
Of course he'll need a job. The low unemployment rate here suggests that he might find one in short order. Now if only some employers could find workers in short order!
Consider Enid. Continental Resources left there in recent months, not because founder Harold Hamm was fed up with his hometown but because Oklahoma City offered a better environment for growing his energy business. Despite Continental's relocation, employers in Enid and elsewhere in northwestern Oklahoma are having difficulty filling jobs. Oil and gas activity is a major reason.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has trouble keeping correctional officers in the region. Oil field jobs can pay as much as twice what the state pays. Yet the agency is working with another Oklahoma City energy firm to place ex-inmates in oil patch jobs because the energy sector itself needs more workers.
Several trend lines are crossing in this story, moving geographically, vocationally and fiscally. Let's connect the dots on the bar graphs:
An agent for the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance told The Oklahoman's Brianna Bailey that finding workers is a constant struggle for small companies in western Oklahoma. Why? Low unemployment in general and higher-paying energy sector jobs in particular. A small aircraft repair firm in Enid may buy or build an apartment building for workers as an incentive for them to relocate. It may cross state lines to lure laid-off aircraft workers in Kansas. An oil field service firm in Woodward opened a yard on the west side of the Oklahoma City metro area in hopes of getting workers not available in Woodward.
The Department of Corrections perpetually struggles to hire and keep prison guards. The number of officers is routinely less than 65 percent of what the agency is authorized. A rebound in oil and gas activity in recent years hasn't helped. Department Director Justin Jones wants to increase the wage rate for new officers from $11.83 an hour to $14. The proposed rate would still be much lower than what oil field jobs pay.
About a third of the state's correctional officers qualify for food stamps. But not just prison workers are affected, and not just blue-collar jobs are at issue. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association says many state employees are leaving for the energy field, which needs accountants as well as truck drivers and welders.
SandRidge Energy Corp. Chairman Tom Ward is an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform, which could reduce the prison population and lower the number of correctional officers needed. This isn't just an ideological position for him: SandRidge trains former inmates, Ward said, “because we know that having a job changes their course, restores their dignity and helps break the endless, generational cycle of incarceration.”
In theoretical terms, Oklahoma now has full employment. In the Enid area, “Everybody that wants a job has a job,” said the owner of the aircraft repair firm.
We hope legislators are aware of these trends. They need to stay serious about prison reform and at least meet Jones halfway on the pay increase. We applaud Ward and others who recognize that the best way to keep offenders from being repeat offenders is to give them a vocation. As for that man from Illinois, we hope he gives Oklahoma a look on his way to check out Texas.
And as for the difficulty of finding workers? Well, it's a good problem for Oklahoma to have.