For the next several weeks, I am traveling across the state in a series of meetings promoting a workforce and education initiative called “Oklahoma Works.”
The meetings, co-hosted by the State Chamber of Oklahoma, promote a much-needed dialogue between education professionals and employers in both the public and private sector. They are designed to answer the questions, “How can state agencies, schools and businesses work together to better prepare students for the workforce? And “How can we better connect skilled Oklahomans with great jobs and careers?”
We are looking for regionally specific answers, not one-size-fits-all solutions. We know that in some parts of the state major employers are looking for skills that can be translated to advanced manufacturing and aerospace careers; in other areas of Oklahoma, agriculture or energy-industry related skills are in high demand.
Our goal is to form innovative, creative partnerships that address local needs. There are already numerous programs across the state that we can look to for inspiration. In Oklahoma City, for example, AT&T has made generous donations through the National Academy Foundation to support career-themed academies in schools with high drop-out percentages. This partnership has helped those schools retain more students while introducing innovative curricula in fields like electronics, biotechnology, aerospace, civil engineering and architecture.
In Tulsa, where American Airlines has the largest civilian maintenance and repair depot in the world, Tulsa Public Schools and Tulsa Career Tech have partnered to form the state’s first Aerospace Academy for high school students.
In Pryor, the businesses in the MidAmerica Industrial Park have teamed up with local public schools, technology centers and universities to offer internships to students that can earn them academic credit and workforce credentials.
Each of these programs serves important local needs. Businesses benefit by receiving a steady supply of talented employees familiar with their industry. Students benefit by earning vital work skills and a potential path to a rewarding, well-compensated career. I am encouraged by other examples that continue to emerge across Oklahoma, and by other innovate ways local communities are seeking to link education and workforce development.
Oklahoma Works divides the state into nine regions, or Key Economic Networks, to evaluate local needs, challenges and solutions. So far, we have had Oklahoma Works meetings in Oklahoma City, Lawton and Tahlequah. We will have a half-dozen more in other areas across the state in the coming weeks.
While each region is different, we have heard two consistent themes thus far in our Oklahoma Works meetings. The first is the need for more students to graduate with proficiency in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Today’s economy and jobs are more technical, more computer-centric and more complicated than ever. Developing and supporting STEM academies and courses – as companies like PSO and the American Electric Power Foundation have generously helped fund in Tulsa – are critical ways to address the growing necessity for those skills.
The second need we have repeatedly heard about is for more young employees with “employability skills,” or an understanding of what the professional world expects: financial literacy, social skills, punctuality and professional behavior. Internships and industry-focused programs can help students develop employability skills by demonstrating that professional success does not just revolve around knowledge alone; it starts with showing up on time and following instructions.
Oklahoma Works can play a driving role in addressing these needs and, in doing so, connect job-seekers with rewarding and high-paying careers. Businesses and employers will benefit from a pipeline of talented, educated and motivated professionals. All Oklahomans will benefit from a stronger economy and a more prosperous state.