Investments in people can help make Oklahoma’s workforce competitive (Capitol Update)

State Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn had a thoughtful Labor Day opinion piece published Sunday in the Tulsa World (and perhaps in other newspapers.) As Labor Commissioner, she is aware that we do not have the necessary workforce in our state. Keeping businesses open requires people to fill the jobs.

Osborn points out that with a current unemployment rate of 2.7 percent, the oft-heard complaint that people are lazy, taking government assistance, and refusing to work is not true. She says we simply don’t have enough bodies to fill the open job slots. Osborn suggests two ways to fix the problem that are right here before us.

We have one of the nation’s best CareerTech systems that provides workforce needs in their areas as quickly as they can. But there are currently approximately 11,000 people on waiting lists to get into these programs. She suggests that with a record amount of dollars in the Rainy Day Fund, investing in the CareerTech system to eliminate the backlog of applicants waiting to get the education to fill local workforce needs would be a good start. 

Secondly, Osborn suggests there are pools of people who could be filling our job shortages but are often overlooked. One of these pools is women who are taken out of the workforce for lack of adequate, affordable childcare. She points out more than half of our counties are deemed “childcare deserts,” meaning that only one slot is available for every 10 that are needed. 

Another pool is formerly incarcerated people who are underutilized. In a state with among the nation’s highest incarceration rates, 1 of every 9 Oklahomans has a former felony conviction. Failure to give these potential workers a second chance causes jobs to go unfilled and forfeits the ability to break cycles of poverty in their families. 

Lastly, she points to the refugees and immigrants who are already living in our state, hold menial labor positions but who would be able to do so much more if allowed. She’s not for “open borders” but points out there are common sense reforms that “might allow hard-working people who have lived here for decades to do more, thereby helping them and helping us.” 

Osborn says we should invest in our state and its citizens. She points out that we are a bottom five state in all economic indicators, which makes it very difficult to recruit people to move to Oklahoma. She says all these ideas may seem simple or make common sense, but they are not being done.

Osborn’s suggestions that would help prior felons and immigrants find their way into more productive employment mainly require policy changes. Other suggestions—job training, education, and childcare—take money, what Osborn calls an “investment in the state and its citizens.” During the past few years, the state has been fortunate to have increased revenues. 

The legislature has understandably been cautious in not rapidly adding to ongoing budgets, especially after a decade or so of enduring budget cutting and revenue failures. Instead, they created various “savings” accounts in which to hold the money rather than appropriating it. Some of those accounts have come in handy in competing with other states to try to recruit new companies. 

But now is the time, instead of using the savings as an excuse for ill-advised tax cuts, to follow the wise counsel of elected officials like our labor commissioner and others including some legislative leaders to make the investments needed so Oklahoma can attract those new companies—and provide the trained and educated employees they need to do the work.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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