Lindel Fields: Strengthening Oklahoma’s Workforce Pipeline Starts With University, Career Tech Collaboration

Schools and colleges across the state are beginning to reopen, and things look a lot different. However, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the reason that schools exist: to produce a well-trained, qualified workforce.

Even with a 7% unemployment rate sparked by the pandemic, Oklahoma has jobs going unfilled, like many states across the county. Simply put, we don’t have enough skilled workers to match the jobs available.

We only have to look back a few weeks to see the extent of it. Oklahoma was a finalist for the highly coveted Tesla factory. We had a lot to offer, and we can be proud that it took the $160-billion-dollar company many months to decide between us and Austin. But in the end, Tesla noted Austin’s ability to provide the necessary workforce as a reason for the company’s choice.

With three branches of education, Oklahoma can provide the skilled workforce needed by companies like Tesla. However, we need to ask ourselves why our current system is struggling to change our worsening trend that less than 45% of Oklahoma high school graduates will choose to participate in post-secondary education in Oklahoma.

At Tri County Tech, we believe the key to getting more students in the pipeline is by helping them see the light at the end of the tunnel. The idea of a student graduating from high school and going off to college for four years only works out for a handful of students who have the support system or finances to complete this path. We must assess what we can do to better recruit the tens of thousands of high school graduates that will forgo this path every year.

It starts by showing them that there is a path that is attractive, local, and affordable.

One option that is available, but rarely used in our state, is the use of cooperative agreements between career techs and colleges. When successful, it reduces the cost of college and enables students to get a skill they can use to obtain a well-paying job while attending college. Students graduate with little or no debt. And the pipeline of skilled workers is increased.

Rachel Ostberg was a participant in a successful cooperative agreement between Tri County Tech and the University of Oklahoma. She was driven, but also had a family to support taking the option of going away for college off the table. She graduated from Bartlesville High School and began taking course work at Tulsa Community College (TCC) and Rogers State. She finished two years of college debt-free. She then attended the University of Oklahoma’s Dental Hygiene program located at Tri County Tech in Bartlesville, and today has a very successful career as the director of TCC’s dental hygiene program.

Tri County Tech and the University of Oklahoma have an exceptional partnership where the two entities share facilities and staff. Instruction is delivered virtually from the professors at OU Health Science Center in OKC and clinic instruction is handled locally by the Tri County staff who also have faculty status at OU.

The 18-year partnership has reduced the skills gap, especially in rural OK, by providing more than 200 workers in the pipeline and at a fraction of the traditional training costs. The program has since been expanded to Southern Technology Center in Ardmore and Western Technology Center in Weatherford.

The need to expand these partnerships is critical to keeping Oklahoma’s economy competitive and to increasing our State’s rankings on health and well-being.

For example, our state has a significant skills gap for nurses. Currently, career tech trains LPNs and Colleges train RNs. Hospitals need both. Bridging the education gap to spur more LPNs to become RNs would provide the thousands of nurses that are in demand.

A similar approach could be used to get more teachers trained in the state, using the geographically located Tech Centers across the state to inspire future teachers to stay in their local communities.

The choice doesn’t need to be a Career Tech or a University. The choice can, and should be, both if we are going to strengthen Oklahoma’s pipeline of skilled workers. When we break down barriers and build collaborative partnerships, we can light the path for Oklahomans to obtain an affordable education and have hope for a fulfilling career.

Lindel Fields is the Superintendent and CEO of Tri County Tech in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Published on September 15, 2020

Back to top