A few months ago, Governor Fallin released the results of a survey of businesses from across the state that asked what they viewed as the strengths and weaknesses of doing business in Oklahoma. The results showed clearly that Oklahoma businesses value a state education system that they can rely on to produce skilled workers. Oklahoma’s educational institutions at the common, career tech, and higher ed levels all have major roles to play in our state’s economic success.
This web-based survey collected responses from 5,376 Oklahoma-based businesses, representing approximately 20 percent of the state’s total workforce. Business leaders from all 77 counties participated. Chambers of Commerce, other business organizations, and education entities from across the state partnered with the Governor to increase the participation rate.
The highest ranking business climate strength from the survey was the quality of Oklahoma’s two and four-year colleges and universities. Other top factors for a successful business climate were (in order): access to supplies required to conduct business; career tech system preparation for the workplace; affordable housing options for employees; and recreational opportunities. The lowest ranked factors were (from lowest ranked up) workers comp costs; access to funding/capital; business incentives, business assistance programs, and the business tax structure.
On the issue of employment and workforce, the results showed that Oklahoma needs more workers and needs those workers to be better trained. Of the surveyed business leaders, 37 percent anticipate they will hire additional employees within the next year, and 69 percent plan to expand their workforces over the next three years. However, 25 percent of businesses surveyed said it was difficult or very difficult to find skilled laborers, and 61 percent ranked the availability of skilled labor in Oklahoma as “fair” or “poor.”
These results tell us that our higher education and career tech programs are well-respected and doing their job, but workforce and education issues are still one of the biggest concerns that Oklahoma businesses have going forward. Yet state support for education does not seem to reflect this concern.
Oklahoma Career Tech, which has nationally recognized and emulated workforce training programs, has seen its funding decline by 14.6 percent in the past 4 years and could see even more cuts at the local level pending the outcomes of two property tax ballot measures voters will be deciding in November. State funding for higher education has been cut by 8.1 percent over the past four years. The state’s percentage of total funding has dramatically decreased over the past several decades . In 1980, OU received about 38 percent of its revenue from state appropriations, while last year the state only accounted for 18 percent of its total budget. While still affordable by national standards, tuition and fees continue to rise, which risks putting the cost of a degree out of reach for many of our citizens. As OU President David Boren said at a recent meeting, “We have an education crisis in this state, and we seem to be oblivious to it.”
Of course, both Higher Education and Career Tech systems also rely on our common education schools to prepare students. Common Education has seen its funding decrease by 7.3 percent over the past four years at the same time enrollment has been rising. Schools are attempting to meet rising state standards and more mandates with about $200 less per student than they had four years ago. Oklahoma continually ranks in the bottom 3-5 states for investments in our public schools.
The Governor’s survey confirms what other rankings and surveys of business leaders from across the country have said about workforce being a key issue for business success. Businesses want and need quality education systems that produce well-educated and well-trained workers that will lead their businesses into greater prosperity. Investing in our education entities is something that will pay off for Oklahoma’s businesses and in turn will help the overall economy grow. The businesses of Oklahoma have spoken. Now will the Governor and legislative leaders listen and make education funding a priority next session?