Published: Nov. 30, 2017
Lt. Gen. Lee Levy II is transitioning his fleet from the Iron Age to the information age and needs thousands of engineers to accomplish the task.
The Air Force Sustainment Center commander repeated a familiar refrain on Wednesday: He needs candidates who have science, engineering, technology, and mathematics education so there’s a larger pool from which to draw workers. There aren’t enough graduates from Oklahoma’s universities to fill all the spots he and the private businesses that support Oklahoma’s second-largest industry have available.
Oklahoma City University’s business school dean, Steve Agee, said Levy and the aerospace industry need to work closely with the universities to outline specifically what’s needed. Oklahoma City Democratic Rep. Jason Dunnington said the STEM workforce pipeline gets clogged if the state won’t adequately fund common education and higher education.
Levy said the stronger he and his staff are, the more they can prepare military forces for combat to defend the nation.
“Today we sustain airplanes, and tomorrow we will sustain software,” he said. “Today we shoot bullets and drop bombs and tomorrow we will shoot ones and zeroes at our enemies.”
He spoke about the need for a strong education system Wednesday at the Sheraton Midwest City Hotel’s Reed Conference Center to an audience of about 350 people. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber hosts the annual event.
Levy is responsible for more than 43,000 airmen in 25 states and seven countries. About 30,000 military and civilian employees keep Tinker Air Force Base running. Altus, Tinker and Vance Air Force bases combine to support about 72,650 jobs annually with an estimated payroll of about $4.7 billion, according to an Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission study published earlier this year. Annual spending from the three bases is about $14.6 billion.
Richard J. Sullivan, Northrop Grumman Military Aircraft Systems vice president and B-2 program manager, said the state’s attractive tax incentives and tax structures attract companies like his and encourage his firm to expand. His firm’s executives are interested in investing in Oklahoma, he said, and they want to be part of the momentum of vision and growth.
Oklahoma has a great quality of life, great schools and great politicians, said Sullivan, a resident of Pasadena, California.
But his industry needs more people working in the aerospace and defense industries to help lower costs and meet demand, Sullivan said. Engineers have to communicate with future workers early on in order to capture their interest when they’re adolescents.
Agee said his advice to those in the industry is to meet with college and university deans and provide details on how many and what kind of experienced graduates they need.
“What kind of training do they need? Software, computer science, do they need to know how to code?” he said.
Then they must figure out how to provide resources to higher education institutions so they can ensure there is enough laboratory space. There also needs to be sufficient scholarships for those students who can’t afford an education. He had a similar meeting with Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby a few years ago and developed an accounting and finance program partnership with the tribe.
“Sit down and tell us exactly what you need,” Agee said. “If you get people together, you can work out these relationships.”
Dunnington said he was struck by what Sullivan said about Oklahoma’s schools; the state hasn’t invested in schools and higher education. Quite the opposite. Common education and the university system are funded at 1999 levels, Dunnington said.
“We have an incredible opportunity to grow and we need to diversify our economy,” he said. “But we’re clogging the pipeline because we’re not funding schools.”
The state won’t be able to increase the number of STEM graduates or keep those potential workers in the state after commencement if legislators don’t provide more funding to the education system.
Levy said the computer science and engineer shortage isn’t just an Oklahoma issue; it’s a nationwide problem, but he feels the effect locally. To solve the problem, children have to perceive science and math as something cool; otherwise, they won’t be interested in pursuing a STEM career.
“We need this to advance the U.S.,” Levy said. “If not, we will lose militarily and economically.”