Published: Jan 22, 2017
Devery Youngblood and other employers in Oklahoma have watched the last two legislative sessions largely from the sidelines as advocates and critics debate education spending, specifically higher education.
Last session, higher education funding was slashed by more than $153 million, or 16 percent. At the same time, Youngblood said Oklahoma employers are having a hard time finding people to fill open positions.
He and other employers are done sitting on the sidelines.
“We think a lot of what has been said is not remotely how Oklahoma feels,” Youngblood said. “Oklahoma overwhelmingly supports higher ed.”
So, Youngblood and 16 other employers from across the state decided to launch an advocacy group called Oklahoma Tomorrow.
“Oklahoma Tomorrow was created to ensure Oklahomans have opportunities to aspire higher and receive degrees allowing them to compete and contribute to our economy,” said Youngblood, CEO of Oklahoma Tomorrow. “If funding for higher education is not restored by the legislature, a college degree will become inaccessible for more and more Oklahomans, limiting their ability to build successful lives. We cannot allow today’s budget crisis to cripple tomorrow’s future.”
They all have stories about how lack of higher ed funding is hurting their businesses and communities.
“Obviously higher education is extremely important for Oklahoma’s future,” Farzaneh said. “I think a lot of problems are solved by education.”
Vahid Farzaneh, owner of Freestyle Creative in Moore, is the youngest Oklahoma Tomorrow board member at 33 and he has a daughter who is 18-months old. He said some might expect him to focus on pre-k or elementary education. But he sees higher education as the place where the quickest impact can be made, either negatively or positively.
“It has a trickle-down affect,” Farzaneh said.
He said higher education cuts don’t just affect Oklahoma’s economy because employers can’t fill openings.
When students have to take on extra loans due to rising tuition, or because they need to attend an extra semester or two because a college has a shortage of qualified professors, that leads to more debt on graduation day.
Farzaneh said that debt accumulation dissuades them from buying a house and gaining assets, which hurts Oklahoma’s construction and development companies.
“I’m a businessman,” he said. “I understand entrepreneurship. I understand assets. The workforce is not ready.”
Oklahoma Tomorrow is focused on increasing funding across all higher education institutes in Oklahoma, with a special emphasis on increasing spending in areas with high need, like IT, engineering and nursing.
Due to certification requirements, technology and the need for more hands-on training, these programs are some of the most expensive.
“The jobs we need the most, cost the most,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood said top officials at Tinker Air Force Base have told him the base has an opening for every single Oklahoma engineer graduate, and even if every single engineer in Oklahoma graduating this year did come to the base, there would still be openings.
“He’ll say that to anybody who will listen,” Youngblood said. “Which is a stunning statement from our largest employer.”
For Tinker, a lack of talent to fill positions could always potentially lead to a base closure. But if other businesses can’t find necessary talent, even businesses that want to stay in Oklahoma, they will need to move out of state.
Tinker Air Force Base is looking to fill chairs, while nursing programs across Oklahoma are at capacity, leading four year and two year institutions to turn potential students away. Without each of Oklahoma’s 25 public institutes, only five of which are in metro areas, Youngblood said Oklahomans would not get necessary education for future employment.
“Whether it’s the challenge of providing rural healthcare or finding engineers for Tinker Air Force Base, we must all work together to fund the education that produces tomorrow’s critical workforce,” said Bruce Benbrook, chair of Oklahoma Tomorrow.
The goal isn’t just to turn out STEM graduates as quickly as possible. The goal is to create a sustainable pipeline of educated and skilled workers.
“When you look at the people we employ and the people we will need to employ, they’re coming from families that make less than $50,000 a year. They’re people who are they first people in their family to go to college,” Youngblood said. “The system has to meet people’s lives, and it does. It has to meet the economy, and it does. They system does work, we just have to fund it.”