As schools across Oklahoma prepare for graduations, students may be finding themselves frustrated at the lack of job prospects in their hometowns and across the nation. Businesses that once were eager to hire are now navigating the fiscal impact of their doors being closed due to COVID-19, and in many cases, are reassessing the size of their workforce.

While there are many unknowns that come from a once-in-a-century pandemic, we can be confident America’s economy will make a comeback. Our shared experience of the pandemic will ignite innovations and technologies the world has not seen before.

New jobs will emerge that will require new skill sets. The most innovative companies will be scrambling for the same few qualified workers, and in the short-term, a new skills gap will emerge. Simultaneously, new graduates will be competing on the job market with tenured professionals in need of new training.

This cycle in America’s workforce is not new. Only a decade ago, our nation’s economy faltered through one of its longest recessions. America faced a lag to produce new workers as schools and colleges grasped the new reality and began to create new programs to meet demand.

While the shift in thinking occurred, new businesses were delayed for lack of a quality, skilled workforce. This same challenge, if not addressed, will be a significant contributor to our slow economic recovery again. But this new and impending skills gap is avoidable in Oklahoma.

The use of Oklahoma’s CareerTech system can and will bridge the economic divide once again. The system was designed to be flexible and forward looking to meet the ever-changing needs of job creators.

Oklahoma has 29 technology centers geographically located across the state, each with our own unique stories of building economic opportunity in our communities. Our agility comes from being locally controlled and devoid of major bureaucratic systems that tend to slow the progress of needed emerging training programs. Oklahoma’s CareerTech system can stand up a full-time training program in just a few months that produces graduates, of any age or milestone in their adult career, in less than a year.

At Tri County Tech alone, we have created 14 programs over the past few years to meet the unique needs of companies in cybersecurity, networking, engineering, and medicine and biosciences, and to ensure our students find fulfilling and well-paying jobs.

This past Tuesday, I had the honor of participating in the virtual graduation of 307 students, many who have secured work even in this tumultuous time.

Dylan, 18, earned a certificate in construction technology and will immediately begin working as a carpentry apprentice at a nationally ranked construction company, as well as Lisa who pursued a mid-life career change and will begin work immediately as a medical coder at a local hospital.

As Oklahoma begins to reopen, employers will also be scrambling to train their existing workforce to meet new safety requirements. A primary arm of the Oklahoma CareerTech system is its customized industry training programs that work directly with industry to develop, customize and deliver unique training programs to meet a specific need very quickly and inexpensively. Tri County most recently started training front-line nursing assistants using virtual technology, which allows students to gain vital skills while working in the field to meet the critical need in Oklahoma’s long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

With the strength in our CareerTech system, and in collaboration with higher education, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the state chamber, we must continue a vigilant dialogue with businesses to develop the training programs of tomorrow. Working together, we can get ahead and be positioned for a strong, long-term recovery that will remind the nation why Oklahoma is the best place to live, thrive, and do business.

Lindel Fields is superintendent and CEO of Bartlesville-based Tri County Tech.


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