When Oklahoma's secretary of education post opened in July, Gov. Mary Fallin decided to expand the mission.
The governor named CareerTech Director Robert Sommers to serve on her Cabinet as secretary of education and workforce development, making a closer link between the two fields.
“Workforce is all about making people able to be economically self-sufficient, to be excited about all kinds of careers,” Sommers said. “Education is how we provide them with the knowledge, skill and aptitudes to be able to do that. And so it makes sense to connect those two.”
Fallin strengthened the connection in August when she announced improving education and workforce training systems would be her focus during her one-year term as chairman of the National Governors Association.
Fallin unveiled her initiative — called “America Works: Education and Training for Tomorrow's Jobs” — during the association's summer meeting in Milwaukee.
“Our future economic security will require significant improvements to our education system and workforce training programs. It also will require closer relationships among our high schools, colleges, workforce training providers and employers,” Fallin said last week.
“Supporting education is one of the most important things we can do to improve quality of life, spur economic growth and wealth creation for Oklahoma families. We have too many children in poverty in the state of Oklahoma, and all too often they fall through the cracks. We owe it to every child in Oklahoma to provide them with the best education possible so they are prepared to succeed in life and so that they have endless opportunities.”
A new minimum
A high school diploma once was an avenue to the middle class or beyond. Not anymore.
“High school diplomas without any career technical instruction or additional well-rounded technical training really leaves you with an opportunity to continue education, but not very many living-wage job options,” Sommers said.
“You have to have high academic, plus technical skills, foundation skills — those manifest themselves in CareerTech credentials or college degrees — and that's become the new minimum,” he said.
People with valued industry credentials out-earn many others with associate degrees and bachelor degrees, Sommers said, noting his Ph.D. doesn't qualify him to drive a truck, sell real estate or repair a car.
“If you combine industry credentials with college degrees you make the most money of everybody in the population,” he said.
The five ecosystems in Oklahoma that generate the most wealth — aerospace, finance, agriculture, logistics and energy — all require a full range of technical skills, Sommers said.
“A lot of the applications around building, creating, fixing — the doing occupations — is where we have a lot of growth, and, quite frankly, a lot of earnings,” he said.
More people ages 18 to 25 nationwide are unemployed or not looking for a job today than at any time, he said.
“They may have a degree, but they can't get a job.”
The raw data shows overall unemployment in Oklahoma stood at 5.5 percent for the period from December 2012 through November 2013, said Lynn Gray, director of economic research and analysis for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. But the numbers are higher for workers ages 20 to 24, Gray said. Unemployment for males was 10.4 percent and for females was 8 percent.
“Because of the emphasis that has been placed on our students to get a college degree, we've seen a dramatic decline in the number of qualified workers needed for skilled labor jobs,” said Bob Funk, chairman and CEO of Oklahoma City-based Express Employment Professionals.
“We have good-paying jobs that are ready for people, but it's not easy to find the workers to fill jobs in industries like welding, CNC machine programming, CDL truck driving, accounting and IT.”
Funk said educators and leaders should emphasize the opportunities available to young people looking for work in fields that are too often overlooked.
“My advice to job seekers, especially to those without college degrees, is to be sure you learn a skill or a trade, otherwise this economy is very tough,” he said. “Keep applying yourself to the opportunities you do have and work toward the career you want no matter what it takes.”