OKLAHOMA CITY – Workforce is the top priority for business leaders, according to the State Chamber – and it is top of mind for Oklahoma lawmakers heading into the 2023 legislative session.
The State Chamber held its Public Affairs Forum 2022 event at the Oklahoma City Convention Center on Tuesday. Speakers included Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka; Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City; House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City; and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City.
Each year the State Chamber takes a survey of business leaders in Oklahoma, and the latest survey made clear what state leaders need to do to help business, according to Chad Warmington, president and CEO of The State Chamber.
“More than 60% of respondents said that the number-one issue facing their business, the biggest threat to their business being able to be in Oklahoma and be competitive, was workforce,” Warmington said.
“Oklahoma has the talent, the employers and the conditions necessary to be a … state where companies move to due to our workforce conditions,” Warmington said.
The unemployment rate remains low, but businesses are still struggling to find qualified, skilled workers, McCall said. During the 2023 session, lawmakers will be focused on “strategic investments” in workforce needs and tax reform.
Oklahoma has the fourth-lowest corporate income tax in the country, but still ranks 23rd in overall tax policy, McCall said.
The Legislature will be making targeted investments in health care, education and economic development projects next year, McCall said, and will focus on helping businesses that are already here in the state grow.
“It’s easier for the state to help existing industry than to attract new ones,” McCall said.
Certain social policies and the political “culture wars” are having a negative effect on the workforce, said Munson. Extreme political stances, such as Oklahoma’s nearly complete ban on abortion, hurt the state’s ability to attract business, Munson said.
“As we continue to grow our economy Oklahoma, we must be open to welcoming a diverse workforce,” Munson said. “If we’re going to ask CEOs to bring their businesses and their employees to our state, we have to demonstrate the ability to embrace and celebrate all people.”
The education system is producing the state’s future workforce, Floyd said, but educators are leaving the profession in droves. The 2021-22 school year saw a record number of emergency certifications to fill vacant teacher positions – 3,914 – said Floyd.
“This is a workforce issue; we need to know why we’re losing this many teachers,” Floyd said.
Munson said a former Teacher of the Year quit the job “because of the pay but also because of the lack of respect for her profession,” noting that much of the rhetoric in the state Capitol building during the previous session “put a target on their backs.”
“The pandemic highlighted one of the biggest barriers for our employees to enter and remain in the workforce, and that’s access to affordable quality child care,” Munson said.
Roughly 65% of Oklahomans live in a “child care desert” without adequate providers to meet the needs of the local workforce, said Floyd. Out of 77 counties in Oklahoma, 34 are considered “child care deserts,” and the issue affects rural and urban counties alike.
Child care has been shown to provide a $1.7 billion impact on the state’s economy, Floyd said.
Criminal justice reform also could yield benefits to the workforce system, Floyd said.
“When these people come out of jail, they’re joining the workforce,” Floyd said. “We’re losing part of our workforce by not making transition out of prison easier.”
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