EDMOND — The Oklahoma City metro area has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, but 23-year-old Edmond resident Brandon Kobs has struggled to find permanent work after graduating with a degree in strategic communications from Oklahoma State University last year.
“There’s just not any jobs at creative firms, especially when there are so many talented freelancers out there they can go to when they need work done,” Kobs said.
Skilled in video production, graphic design and animation, Kobs decided to strike out on his own doing freelance design jobs after the small, family-owned firm he landed a job with after college ran into financial problems and left him without work.
So far, work has been slow and Kobs swings between classifying himself as underemployed or between jobs.
Kobs has been on a few job interviews, but interest in his resume has mostly come from commissioned sales jobs or network-based marketing companies.
Although Oklahoma’s economy is strong, some Oklahoman still struggle to find full-time work and are considered underemployed — or working part-time while seeking a full-time position.
Although Oklahoma’s statewide unemployment rate has hovered around 5 percent over the past year — a figure many economists consider full employment, not all of those workers are working full-time.
For the 12 months ending in July 2014, there were 55,700 Oklahomans who were working part-time hours for “economic reasons” out of a workforce of about 1.68 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled for the the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I would define these persons as ‘underemployed’ because they want full-time employment but are unable to find such employment,” said Lynn Gray, chief economist for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
There were another 320,000 Oklahoma workers who were working part-time hours for non-economic reasons during the same period of time, according to the federal data, typically meaning it was their choice to work less than 35 hours per week, Gray said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also compiles data that includes the number of long-term unemployed and people who are employed only part-time into the unemployment rate.
While Oklahoma has had an average official unemployment rate of 5.2 percent over the past nine months ending in July, the state’s unemployment rate rises to 9.7 percent when the long-term unemployed and part-time workers who want a full-time job are added.
“The idea being that these people are at least partially unemployed, so to speak — some of them work as few as five or six hours a week, but they would still like to work full time,” Gray said.
Temporary to permanent
Many who can’t find a full-time job in their career field turn to freelance, contingency or temporary work, said Bob Funk, CEO and chairman of Oklahoma City-based Express Employment Professionals. Not everyone turns to temporary work out of necessity — many choose temporary or freelance work because of the flexibility or some other non-economic reasons, Funk said.
A study from MBO Partners, a support system for independent professionals, found that the number of U.S. independent workers, including freelancers and contractors, in addition to temporary workers, was 17.7 million in 2013, a 10 percent increase from 2011, according to data compiled in a report Express Employment Professionals issued in conjunction with Labor Day. MBO forecasts independent workers will reach 24 million by 2018.
Temporary workers with Express Employment Professionals average about a 37-hour work week, Funk said. About half are eventually hired by the companies where they work as temporary workers, Funk said.
Funk believes that the reason more people cannot find high-paying, full-time, permanent employment is that there are not enough people training in areas where there is high job demand, such as health care and information technology, he said.
“People are lacking the skills and education in some areas where jobs are in high demand,” he said.
Oklahoma City’s Metro Technology Centers sees many recent college graduates who come to the education center for supplemental classes. Even after earning a four-year degree, many Metro Tech students take classes to obtain professional certifications they lack in order to find a full-time, permanent job, said Shaun Dillehay, marketing coordinator for Metro Technology.
Professional certifications for workers in health and IT fields can make the difference between a full-time or part-time job and also can help workers obtain a higher paying position, Dillehay said.
“When I go to college career fairs, I will ask students what kind of job they want and I’ll sometimes hear ‘I don’t know, something in business,’” Dillehay said. “They have the theory, but they don’t have the skills.”