Business, political leaders brainstorm workforce development strategies

By Jaclyn Houghton

CNHI News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Norma Noble recognizes the shortages in Oklahoma's workforce and the skills workers possess, but finding a solution is challenging.

"There's not a simple answer; it's everyone's responsibility," said Noble, Oklahoma deputy secretary of commerce for workforce development.

One of the most challenging tasks is obtaining data to know what is lacking in today's workers.

"There are some things we'd like to say that we can't support because we don't have the data," she said.

The literacy rate among adults and the skill sets of workers, not just degrees they earn, are areas lacking statistical data. The workforce has changed from requiring minimal skills to a need for more knowledge-based skills, Noble said.

Business and state leaders gathered at Oklahoma City Community College Friday to discuss what it takes to build a stronger workforce in Oklahoma.

Leadership Oklahoma and the Southern Growth Policies Board held the forum to discuss how to train workers with "soft skills," such as critical thinking and problem-solving, in order to grow the business economy in the state.

The growth of jobs in the state is 50 percent higher than that of population growth, she said.

"We used to be able to depend on population growth to bring more bodies (to Oklahoma), but we can't anymore," Noble said.

The Oklahoma Department of Commerce distributed an employer survey in 2006 and 39 percent of businesses that responded delayed or declined to expand the business because of worker shortages or employees lacking skills, Noble said.

She also pointed out that 14 businesses that would have cumulatively employed about 7,000 employees did not come to the state because of the same shortages. That results in the loss of about $217 million in payroll, Noble said.

Business leaders and state political leaders, such as Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony and former Oklahoma Rep. Clay Pope, D-Loyal, brainstormed ideas on increasing the population of skilled workers in the state.

Some wondered if it is the taxpayers' job to train workers with the skill sets that would directly benefit private companies.

Mary Jane Calvey, president of Real World Management Solutions in Oklahoma City, felt differently.

She said schools and the community can help children at earlier ages develop the necessary skill sets to get a good job. The extra costs to focus on skill development will be balanced by paying less to the criminal justice system because those who are more educated statistically commit fewer crimes, Calvey said.

The best portal to reach students to teach the analytical skills is through the schools, Pope said. He presented his group's ideas on teaching the skills.

One method is increasing the length of the school day to set up programs aimed at teaching critical thinking, problem-solving and other skill sets, Pope said.

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