EDMOND — Rosy unemployment rates aside, Oklahoma faces an educational gap for new jobs that will take more vocational education as well as college to fill.
That's one of several layers that labor specialist Deidre Myers peeled from workforce stats Tuesday at the annual Edmond Economic Preview. Myers, director of research, economic analysis and policy services for the state Commerce Department, was one of several speakers at the event, organized by the Edmond Economic Development Authority and First Fidelity Bank.
State figures are just about upside down when it comes to workforce education and employers' needs, Myers said, providing the numbers:
• Employers need 23 percent of the workforce to have at least a high school education, 49 percent to have an associate degree or vocational training, and about 24 percent to have a bachelor's degree.
• What Oklahoma provided in 2010, the latest year for which figures were available, was a workforce where 46 percent had a high school education, 31 percent had an associate degree or vocational training, and 15 percent had a bachelor's degrees.
Further, across-the-workforce averages, such as Oklahoma's current enviable unemployment rate of 5.1 percent — versus 7.8 percent for the nation as a whole — mask other kinds of gaps, Myers said.
“There isn't just one story across Oklahoma,” she said.
Recession is over
State Treasurer Ken Miller, also a speaker at the event, noted that Oklahoma is one of just five states that have regained all the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, thanks partly to the energy business that touches one-third of the $150 billion state economy.
Further, Oklahoma had the fifth-fastest growth among the states in manufacturing over the past year — up 3.8 percent — and had the seventh-highest net migration, gaining almost 28,000 because of low taxes, low cost of living, low unemployment and sustainable job growth, Miller said.
County unemployment rates vary from less than 4 percent to more than 8 percent, though, and neither extreme is good, Myers said.
Job by age, race
The downside to the higher rates, in Latimer, Le Flore and McCurtain counties in Little Dixie, is obvious: more people out of work.
The downside to the lower rates, mostly in sparsely populated counties in western Oklahoma, is less clear, but in such a tight labor market, growth stalls because production flattens and employers can't expand, Myers said.
Unemployment varies widely by age and race, she said, presenting some statistics:
• Whites age 16-19 have just more than 10 percent unemployment; blacks of the same age have 35 percent unemployment; Hispanics of the same age have more than 15 percent unemployment.
• Whites and Hispanics age 20 and up have less than 5 percent unemployed; blacks 20 and up have about 8 percent unemployment.
But, Myers said, education is “the great equalizer.” Unemployment among those with less than a high school education is around 7 percent. Among those with a high school education it's 5 percent. Among those with an associate degree of vocational certificate it's around 4 percent; and among those with a bachelor's degree or above it's around 3 percent.
Looking at employment another way shows how participation in the workforce varies by race and gender, Myers said, presenting more numbers:
• 73 percent of white men are in the workforce — that is, they either have jobs or are looking for work — and 70 percent are employed, while 55 percent of white women are in the workforce and 52 percent are employed.
• 67 percent of black men are in the workforce and 63 percent are employed, while 65 percent of black women are in the workforce and 58 percent are employed.
• 88 percent of Hispanic men are in the workforce and 85 percent are employed, while 57 percent of Hispanic women are in the workforce and 54 percent are employed.
What determines whether people are looking for work? It's not just discouragement or weariness from looking for a job. Myers pointed to five other drivers of the size of the workforce:
Custom, such as socially conservative Oklahoma families with women who don't work outside the home; age of population in a given place; high income, which does not require a double-income family; poverty, which often means lack of skills and other resources required for employment; and health, including drug use.
In any case, Myers said, with the oil patch humming and the state economy strong in general, “It's a very good time to be in Oklahoma,” although global pressures could make 2013 rocky, especially in manufacturing.
And failure of Congress and the White House to come to long-term agreement on the nation's budget could cost Oklahoma thousands of jobs with cuts to military spending.