Oklahoma has plenty of jobs, but the state's residents don't have the skills and training to fill them.
As the economic recovery takes hold and employment grows, the problem is on pace to get worse, state leaders said. The state Senate Education Committee met Thursday with education and commerce leaders to discuss ways to head off the state's looming shortage of qualified workers.
During the interim study session, lawmakers discussed ideas for increasing the number of degrees and postsecondary certificates awarded at the state's community colleges and CareerTech centers.
The problem comes from job growth in particular areas, said Diedre Myers, director of policy research and economic analysis for the state Commerce Department. Only 18 percent of the new jobs created in Oklahoma between 2010 and 2020 will require no postsecondary education, Myers said.
By contrast, she said, nearly 50 percent will require some form of postsecondary education below a bachelor's degree, she said. That category could include associate's degrees and a range of professional certifications. An additional 25 percent of those jobs will require a bachelor's degree, she said.
A large percentage of the jobs created in the state in the years to come are expected to be in fields such as aerospace, information technology and oil and natural gas, said state Secretary of Science and Technology Stephen McKeever. All those fields require a background in areas related to science and technology.
The state is expected to see more than 6,900 jobs created related to science and technology each year for the next 10 years, McKeever said. But only about 4,000 students graduate from state colleges and universities with degrees in those fields per year.
A large percentage of those students come from outside Oklahoma, meaning they're less likely to stay here after graduation. Many come from overseas, he said, and can't remain in Oklahoma after college because of student visa restrictions.
That leaves Oklahoma's economy lacking the workers it needs to drive continual growth.
“We are at a crisis point in the state of Oklahoma,” McKeever said.
Gov. Mary Fallin has made addressing the lack of qualified workers Oklahoma generates a major priority. Last year, Fallin announced an initiative to boost by 67 percent the number of college degrees and postsecondary certificates awarded in the state by 2023.
The goal comes as a part of Complete College America, a national initiative that seeks to boost the number of college graduates in the country. That total would include all degrees awarded at public and private universities, as well as certificates awarded at CareerTech centers.
Ahead of goals
Earlier this year, higher education officials announced public colleges and universities in Oklahoma had more than 1,900 more graduates during the 2011-12 academic year than during the previous year. That placed the state ahead of its college completion goals for the year, even before factoring in CareerTech graduates.
But leaders said Thursday that changes would be necessary to continue that level of growth. Gary Davidson, director of the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges, said the state's two-year institutions had seen “a tsunami of growth” in enrollment over the past few years.
But during the same period, colleges saw their budgets cut, meaning those institutions are left to educate more students on dwindling resources.
Davidson said he hopes to see the state continue funding for programs that have been successful. Concurrent enrollment through community colleges is one of those programs, he said.
The program allows Oklahoma students to take college-level courses during their junior and senior years of high school, earning them both high school and college credit for the same course. Oklahoma community colleges awarded more than 50,000 credit hours through the program last year, Davidson said.
“It's right in the sweet spot of what we're trying to do with Complete College America,” Davidson said.
Sen. Jim Halligan, R-Stillwater, said the issue of producing skilled workers will be a major challenge for the state in the years to come. The interim study was an opportunity for lawmakers to look at the issue and hear recommendations from key players before the new legislative session begins in January.
Halligan noted that the issue affects his district in particular. Earlier this year, ASCO Industries, a Belgian aerospace company, announced plans to open a plant in Stillwater. The jobs that come with that plant will be a major boon to Oklahoma, Halligan said, but only if it can supply workers qualified to fill them.
“We have lots of jobs, but we don't have people with the requisite skills to do those jobs,” Halligan said. “We need to do something to try to get our skills and the market matched together.”