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Tight labor market keeps help wanted signs posted in Oklahoma

Oklahoma's low level of jobless workers has challenged some firms' ability to find skilled employees.
BY BRIANNA BAILEY Modified: February 12, 2013 at 9:01 pm •  Published: February 13, 2013

Aircraft Structures International Corp. founder Mickey Stowers would like to hire 40 more workers, but Garfield County's unemployment rate of about 3.5 percent has made it harder to find skilled laborers.

Stowers needs more sheet metal workers and structural mechanics to help the firm rebuild Cessna 208 Caravans at its production facility at the Enid Woodring Regional Airport.

The company has even purchased a house in Enid to give out-of-town hires a temporary place to live and is considering buying or building an apartment building to house workers.

He hopes to attract unemployed aerospace workers from Wichita, Kan., who have been laid off from companies such as Boeing and Hawker Beechcraft in the past year.

Increased oil and gas activity in the area, as well as a nearby wind farm under construction, has put a drain on available labor in Garfield County, Stowers said.

“Everybody in town is looking for employees — even McDonald's,” Stowers said. “Everybody that wants a job has a job.”

Like many counties in Oklahoma, Garfield County's unemployment rate has hovered at or below 4 percent during the past year. Many economists define full employment as an unemployment rate somewhere between 3 and 5 percent.

Labor market tight

Low unemployment rates can lead to labor shortages as well as reduced productivity, said Deidre Myers, director of research, economic analysis and policy services for the Oklahoma Commerce Department.

Manufacturers in northwestern Oklahoma in particular are having a harder time finding workers because of lower unemployment, she said.

“There are several ways this can affect businesses,” Myers said.

“Companies may not be able to hire a full workforce to meet their production demands — a manufacturer may not be able to fill a second or third line, because they simply don't have the people.”

Johnny Thornburgh, an extension agent in Ponca City for the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance, said it's a constant struggle for small companies in western Oklahoma to find and keep workers because of the pull from higher-paying jobs in the oil field and overall low unemployment rates.

Many smaller companies simply can't compete with the wages that oil and gas-related jobs are paying, Thornburgh said.

“A small manufacturer only has so many dollars to spend. The workers have got to want to be there,” he said. “A small manufacturer can't offer things like a big signing bonus — those things simply aren't in the budget.”

Training could help

More training programs to create more skilled workers in the state could ease some of the labor shortage problems that low unemployment rates can cause, Myers said.

The Oklahoma CareerTech system has stepped up its aerospace and trucking programs in response to demand for more oil field trucking jobs in western Oklahoma and the growing aerospace sector.

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