Job mar­ket high­lights the need for skilled la­bor

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

OK­LA­HOMA’S job­less rate in Fe­bru­ary was 4 per­cent, down from 4.8 per­cent in the same month last year and a de­crease from the 4.3 per­cent in Jan­uary. That’s good news, ex­cept that em­ploy­ers are hav­ing a devil of a time find­ing people to fill va­cant po­si­tions.

In Ok­la­homa, as across the coun­try, jobs are stay­ing va­cant be­cause not enough qual­i­fied work­ers are ap­ply­ing. The Wall Street Jour­nal used a re­cent Page 1 story to ex­plore the trend, not­ing that par­tic­u­larly in many parts of the Mid­west, “Em­ploy­ers, es­pe­cially in more ru­ral ar­eas, are find­ing that there are just too few work­ers.”

The na­tional un­em­ploy­ment rate in March re­mained at 4.1 per­cent for the sixth straight month. How­ever, only 103,000 jobs were added, which is about half of what many an­a­lysts were ex­pect­ing.

The busi­ness pub­li­ca­tion Bar­ron’s wrote re­cently that across the coun­try, “it’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to find good help” in in­dus­tries rang­ing from truck­ing and con­struc­tion to oil drilling and man­u­fac­tur­ing. And that takes a toll.

“Oil and gas stay in the ground be­cause there aren’t enough work­ers to ex­tract it,” the ar­ti­cle said. “Homes aren’t built be­cause builders can’t find enough la­bor­ers. In Maine this win­ter, the state couldn’t find enough people to drive snow­plows.”

A Fox Busi­ness story from Jan­uary cited a re­port from the As­so­ci­ated Gen­eral Con­trac­tors of Amer­ica show­ing 75 per­cent of con­trac­tors want to ex­pand in 2018, but half of them were strug­gling to fill po­si­tions for skilled and salaried work­ers. Bar­ron’s noted that Cen­sus Bureau pro­jec­tions show the over­all U.S. pop­u­la­tion grow­ing faster than the work­force through 2030 and per­haps later. In the next 10 years, says the head re­searcher at New York-based Fund­strat Global Ad­vi­sors, the nation faces a short­age of 8.2 mil­lion work­ers.

Jen­nifer Monies, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ok­la­homa Achieves, an arm of the State Cham­ber that works to align the state’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem with work­force needs, said cham­ber mem­bers reg­u­larly note the dearth of avail­able help.

“Whether it’s at board meet­ings or other events, we ask all the time, ‘How many of you have empty jobs to fill right now that you would fill right away if pos­si­ble?’ and ev­ery hand goes up,” Monies said.

This points up the need for Ok­la­homa pol­i­cy­mak­ers to con­tinue to push not just for more col­lege grad­u­ates from this state — that must al­ways be a pri­or­ity, par­tic­u­larly in the STEM fields— but also to en­cour­age stu­dents to pur­sue ca­reers that don’t re­quire a fouryear de­gree.

The Ok­la­homa Of­fice of Work­force De­vel­op­ment has said that by 2025, 70 per­cent of the jobs in Ok­la­homa will re­quire some post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. Gov. Mary Fallin’s Ok­la­homa Works ini­tia­tive, be­gun in 2015, has a goal of in­creas­ing de­gree and cer­tifi­cate com­ple­tion via part­ner­ships in­volv­ing K-12 schools, higher ed, Ca­reerTech and the busi­ness com­mu­nity. She also has ad­vo­cated for more ap­pren­tice­ships and in­tern­ships.

These and other ini­tia­tives must con­tinue apace. The bot­tom line is that a high school diploma, once a ticket to a good-pay­ing job, is no longer enough.

“We need more col­lege de­grees, but we need more post-sec­ondary,” Monies said. “You have to have ei­ther in­dus­try cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, an as­so­ciate’s de­gree or some kind of cre­den­tial.”

That’s not just for in the years ahead, but for right now.

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