ENID — 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.
“In western Oklahoma, the need for truck drivers has been tremendous,” said Paula Bowles, chief communications officer for Oklahoma CareerTech. “We've partnered with energy companies in the state to develop statewide programs in those areas.”
CareerTech's aviation maintenance technology programs are offered at several CareerTech centers in the state in response to growing demand.
Statewide, the Oklahoma economy added 35,200 jobs in 2012, a 2.2 percent gain over the previous year.
In December 2012, Garfield County had an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, according to data from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. To the west in Woodward County, the unemployment rate was 2.7 percent in December.
Oil and gas activity in western Oklahoma has left Woodward-based Diamond Services Co. with an increased need for workers for pipeline construction, excavation for well sites and compressor stations, as well as truck drivers and general laborers, said Mark Campbell, Diamond Services vice president.
The company employs about 110 people, but “we're always looking for people — it never really stops,” Campbell said.
A shortage of rental housing in Woodward also has made it hard for Diamond to hire people from outside the area, he said.
“We've hired people from out of town who have had to live in an RV,” Campbell said. “We've helped out with housing assistance, but 60 to 90 days later they're still not finding available housing.”
Diamond and other companies in Woodward are boosting wages and benefits to become more competitive for workers, Campbell said, including paying 100 percent of employees' health insurance coverage.
Diamond Co. has had a difficult time finding enough workers in the Woodward area to meet its needs and moved in 2011 to open a satellite yard in the El Reno area in hopes of attracting workers from the Oklahoma City metro area.
“The main reason we did that is because we needed people and we didn't have them available in Woodward,” Campbell said.
Enid has also seen an increase in companies offering additional benefits and housing assistance to help attract out-of-town workers, said Brent Kisling, director of the Enid Regional Development Alliance.
“We are seeing some unusual benefits that employers are offering starting to creep in over the past few years,” he said.
The city has formed a partnership with the monster.com job-listing website to ensure posts for jobs in Enid are seen by out-of-state job seekers. The Enid Regional Development Alliance helps subsidize local companies' costs for posting job listings on the site.
“It is a challenge when we have a 3 percent unemployment rate, but it's a problem that you love to have,” he said.