12.9.22 – Oklahoman
Oklahoma’s State Chamber wants the governor to appoint a workforce “czar” who can lead an aggressive push to find more skilled workers in nursing, teaching, aerospace and dozens of other career fields.
Chad Warmington, CEO of the State Chamber, said his organization has already pushed the idea with Gov. Kevin Stitt, who he said was receptive.
Addressing workforce challenges is top of mind for multiple state agencies and departments, Warmington said, but there is not a unified statewide approach.
“Nobody is really tasked with owning that. We don’t have a workforce czar, we don’t have somebody who is pulling them all together and trying to get them on the same page,” Warmington told The Oklahoman. “Whose job is it going to be to highlight that and then to say to the Legislature we are going to fund these programs and we need to make sure we are getting these people together?”
The pandemic, stagnant wages and inflation have significantly altered the nation’s workforce, leading to employers in almost every sector struggling to find enough workers.
The state’s aging population, lack of childcare options and poor health metrics also have made it harder to find employees, according to an analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank.
Recruiting businesses requires the state to ’embrace and celebrate all people’
Workforce challenges have been spotlighted by state business leaders for years, but it was the top concern at the State Chamber’s annual public affairs forum, which was held last week in Oklahoma City.
Speaking at the forum, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said addressing workforce development problems is a priority for his caucus next year, although he did not offer any details.
But Democratic lawmakers told the room full of business leaders that attracting more skilled workers to the state required financial investments in education, increased social support and a political climate that welcomes all people.
House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson said the state’s abortion ban and attempts to end gender-affirming care made Oklahoma less desirable for healthcare workers.
Munson also said culture war battles hurt the state’s ability to attract all types of employees.
“If we are going to ask CEOs to bring their business and employees to our state then we have to demonstrate the ability to embrace and celebrate all people,” said Munson, D-Oklahoma City.
Like Munson, Sen. Kay Floyd, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, said the state’s focus should be on improving social support policies, such as paid family and medical leave, investing in public education and improving opportunities for formerly incarcerated Oklahomans.
But she said one of the best ways to address the state’s labor challenges is to reverse the decade-long increase in emergency certified teachers, which reached a record high this year.
“We have teachers leaving the state, we have teachers changing professions, we have teachers resigning, and we have teachers retiring. This is a workforce issue,” Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said at the forum.
New programs in film and aviation adding workers
The State Chamber forum also showcased ways new programs are helping address workforce challenges.
A partnership between Prairie Surf Studios, which operates a major film production facility in downtown Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma City Community College began this year to attract and train more workers for the state’s growing film industry, which needs workers who can build sets and operate soundstages.
“Right now, Oklahoma’s film (industry) is on fire,” said Matt Payne, co-owner of Prairie Surf Studios. “These shows are creating high-paying jobs and they are truly changing lives.”
An aviation program launched at Norman Public Schools was also highlighted as a way to train future pilots.
Warmington, the State Chamber’s CEO, said these programs are working and need to be expanded.
The chamber plans to lobby for more state funding to go into programs that address workforce issues, an effort Warmington hopes will be led by a new gubernatorial-appointed leader.
“Oklahoma is too nimble and too well connected to not get coordinated on these things,” Warmington said.