A Void of Skilled Workers

Thu, 04/02/2015 - 9:33am

State students aren't being properly prepared for workforce, report finds

By Tim Willert, Staff Writer - NEWSOK.com  |  posted April 2, 2015

Tim Willert, NewsOK.com and Jennifer Monies, OKEWI video photo
(Click photo to view video on NewsOK.com)

Oklahoma schools are producing only half the workers needed for high-skilled state jobs that require formal learning, a trend that could result in more than 500,000 such jobs going unfilled by Oklahomans by 2020, according to a new report.

Oklahoma's Business Case for Education Reform was researched by two members of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. The report found that only 39,082 of 50,220 Oklahoma children who entered kindergarten in 2000 graduated from high school in 2012.

Just 4,319 of those graduates (8.6 percent) will complete college in four years, according to the report, which also found that 40 percent of college-bound high school graduates in Oklahoma have to take at least one remedial class when they arrive.

According to the report, Oklahoma will need to add more than 524,000 degrees by 2020 to fill 64 percent of jobs that will require post-secondary education. Just 33 percent of the state's working-age adults hold two- or four-year college degrees.

Shawnee manufacturer Chuck Mills called the report's findings “disturbing.”

“In my opinion they're not being properly prepared with the skills needed to be successful in the workforce,” said Mills, owner of Mills Machine Co. and a member of the Governor's Council for Workforce and Economic Development.

“We're lagging behind because we're teaching them to memorize information to pass a test, many times with no real tangible connection to what that information means or how it may be used to solve problems.”

The report was paid for by the Oklahoma Educated Workforce Initiative (OEWI), an education nonprofit started by the State Chamber of Okla homa to help better engage the business community in education issues.

OEWI Executive Director Jennifer Monies says Oklahoma schools are graduating students without the skills needed to succeed in a modern workplace.

Monies said the report reveals cracks in the state's education pipeline that allow too many students to drop out of school or graduate without the skills they'll need for a good career or college.

“Having a skilled workforce and having the workers that they need is definitely a bottom-line issue for companies,” she said. “And it's something that we're facing in Oklahoma as far as we're having a challenge finding the skilled workers that we need to fill the jobs that we have.”

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister called the findings “alarming” and said they highlight the challenges educators face ensuring that Okla homa graduates have the skills and knowledge base for 21st-century jobs.

“We need a multifaceted approach that includes emphasizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) instruction and forward-thinking initiatives such as Governor Fallin's 'Okla homa Works' program,” Hofmeister said.

“But the most foundational action we can take is to have an effective, permanent teacher in every classroom so our students understand mathematics, science and other subjects essential for a highly skilled workforce.”

While a shortage of skilled workers in Oklahoma is nothing new, Mills, chairman of the state chamber, said the problem is starting to get worse because more and more people are finally retiring.

“It's leaving a void of skilled workers,” he said.

Oklahoma CareerTech Director Marcie Mack said the agency is focusing efforts on teaching students the skills they need to take thsose jobs and “fill the gap” through instruction at technology centers, skills centers and programs in comprehensive schools.

“Our goal is to provide a job for every Oklahoman and a workforce for every company,” she said.

Mills and Monies emphasized the importance of education and business working together on a plan to match rigorous education standards with the realities of what graduates will face in college or the job market.

“Business has to be engaged,” Mills said. “The business community just wants to help ... help (educators) understand what it is we need to help these kids have successful lives.”