Published: April 29, 2017
Despite state budget woes, Gov. Mary Fallin wants lawmakers to earmark $20 million for a new Critical Occupations Fund designed to put more people to work in jobs deemed crucial to growing Oklahoma's economy.
The money would go to public colleges and universities that demonstrate a plan to produce more graduates trained to fill jobs on the state's list of top 100 critical occupations, said Natalie Shirley, secretary of education and workforce development.
The state has more than 60,000 unfilled jobs, and about 18,000 of those openings are critical occupations, including nurses, engineers, teachers, computer programmers, chemists, accountants and truck drivers.
"We have a huge number of those jobs that are open and it will only get larger," Shirley said.
Engineering and nursing programs in Oklahoma are turning students away because of a lack of resources, despite the great need for engineers and nurses, Shirley said.
The proposed fund would award grants for more faculty, lab space, equipment, scholarships or whatever is needed to graduate more students more quickly.
Two years ago, Fallin introduced the Oklahoma Works initiative, which connects employers, employees and job-seekers to information and programs that help build the state's workforce. Oklahoma Works is designed to increase quality employment for workers and available skilled talent for business and industry.
This year the governor announced Launch Oklahoma, an ambitious new workforce initiative developed from recommendations by the Oklahoma Works Leadership Team, headed by Shirley.
The goal is to produce nearly 600,000 more workers with a college degree, certificate or other quality credential in just eight years.
Focus on adults
Projections show 77 percent of the state's jobs in 2025 will require education beyond high school. But only two in 10 high school graduates earn a postsecondary certificate or degree, according to the Oklahoma State System for Higher Education.
The new initiative will focus on helping adults ages 25-64 obtain the skills and degrees they need to fill those jobs, Shirley said.
Of special interest are adults who started work on a degree, but left the system at some point and never finished.
Some 70,000 Oklahomans have completed 70 to 80 hours of college credit but have no degree. Some of them could be awarded an associate degree immediately or with one more class, said Tony Hutchison with the Oklahoma State System for Higher Education.
"We've got to pick up the adults. Many can finish with just a year of education or training," Shirley said.
Oklahoma offers a flexible program designed to give adults a second chance to finish their degree while keeping their normal work and family routine.
"There is a job for every Oklahoman who is willing to get the skills and education needed to get a job that is better than what they are doing now," Shirley said.
CareerTech looms large
Oklahoma's CareerTech is a big part of the plan with more than half a million adults and 150,000 youth enrolled each year.
CareerTech has 29 technology center districts, programs in 395 school districts and cooperative alliance agreements with the state higher education system. High school students attend technology centers at no cost, and have the opportunity to obtain college credit toward an associate degree as they obtain industrial credentials and training.
Director Marcie Mack said the agency looks at workforce needs from a company perspective to make sure workers are getting the training for high-demand, high-wage jobs.
"We get the opportunity to work directly with business and industry to ask what their needs are," Mack said. "How do we help train not only their current workforce, but how do we help prepare our students to be their future workforce?"
CareerTech launched an online tool in 2015 called OK Career Guide to help Oklahomans find out where their career interests lie, from a young teen starting to explore careers, to an adult looking to change careers. More than 56,500 registered users have logged on to the free career planning site.
It's important to help individuals currently in the workforce pipeline, but equally important to continually fill that pipeline, Mack said.
"We provide students with an opportunity for a career plan, an opportunity to look at what is available here in Oklahoma and what skill sets do you need to obtain employment in that career field," she said.