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.”
Focusing on career development from an early age will help graduates be prepared for the jobs that await them, officials say.
Sommers said the goal is to ensure K-12, CareerTech and higher education workforce development criteria are aligned.
“The leaders of these major state initiatives are meeting regularly to assure we are all working together for our common cause, wealth and opportunity for every Oklahoman and a return on investment to Oklahoma taxpayers,” he said.
Sommers meets regularly with state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson, Commerce Secretary Larry Parman, the governor's workforce council and other groups that encompass high schools, colleges, workforce training providers and employers.
These types of meetings have never occurred before, Fallin said.
Sommers said students in grade school can learn about various careers and about themselves. What am I good at? Do I like working on a computer or working outside?
By middle school, students should be engaged in hands-on, project-based instruction, he said.
“The academic instruction gets better, they find their passion and purpose in life and they get excited about the educational experience and attend college at a higher rate,” Sommers said.
Students who learn career development skills in addition to math, language and science skills, plan better, prepare better and have more choices, he said.
College to career
Linking Oklahoma's colleges and universities with business and industry furthers the smooth transition from education to workforce.
Chancellor Johnson said there was great concern in the late 1980s that college graduates had to leave Oklahoma to find jobs. Today, nearly 9 out of 10 graduates from Oklahoma colleges and universities have jobs in the state one year out, he said.
“We're moving in the right direction,” Johnson said. “One of the major reasons is we, as a state system of higher education, have made a much more directed and concerted effort to link our academic programs at all of our colleges and universities more specifically to what business is telling us their needs are.”
Matching academic programs to those specific needs generates opportunities for internships while students are in school and jobs after graduation, he said.
Areas most in need of workers include health care, engineering, business, management information and new technologies like wind turbine technology, Johnson said.
“We're developing programs that will produce graduates in those areas.”
“The relationship with commerce is key to what we do,” Johnson said. “The partnering is more focused than it's ever been.”
The regents won't approve a new academic program unless the institution can prove market demand and a large enough pool of students who will take that course, he said.
Oklahoma's colleges and universities are collaborating a lot more on joint degree programs, specifically to address what businesses' needs are, what employers' demand are and what the workforce requirements are, Johnson said.
He cites — as one of many examples — the workforce needs at Tinker Air Force Base, the state's largest employer, and the aviation program at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant. Because of demand, Southeastern also offers classes on the base and at Rose State College and Oklahoma City Community College.
A survey of Oklahoma's top 5,400 business leaders conducted by the state Commerce Department ranked the quality of the two-year and four-year colleges and universities as the state's No. 1 business strength, Johnson said.
“Ultimately our goal is to be responsive to the needs of business and to produce graduates who can gain jobs in this state,” Johnson said.
Officials are focusing on high-end jobs that will drive the state economy, will keep young people here and will attract other people to Oklahoma, Sommers said.
“We recognize that economic prosperity in the state of Oklahoma relies on Oklahomans being able to generate wealth for themselves, wealth for the companies and the organizations they work for, and of course wealth for the state itself,” he said.
Workforce is all about making people able to be economically self-sufficient, to be excited about all kinds of careers. 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.”