Plan to Educate Oklahoma Energy Workers Isn't Concrete, Has Surprises

Oct 14, 2013

(From left) Oklahoma Energy Resources Board Chairman Tim Munson, Oklahoma State University Burns Hargis, Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry and Oklahoma Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Robert Sommers participate in a panel discussion on educating the state's future energy workers on Oct. 9 at the Governor's Energy Conference.
Credit Matt Trotter / KWGS

"We have to have a highly skilled, educated workforce to take care of our energy jobs," Gov. Mary Fallin said in her speech opening her third-annual energy conference.

Oklahomans hear these words often. They're not often accompanied by a plan, however, because the problem is complex. But a group of the state's top figures in education sat down at the conference for a panel discussion on the topic.

First, some surprising problems.

"We worry about oil spills out of pipelines, but we have a huge human oil spill out of our education pipeline where young people — especially young men — are not making it all the way through the system," said Oklahoma Secretary of Education and Workforce Development  Robert Sommers.

Poor outcomes in K-12 education are handicapping Oklahoma students who want to work in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, which cover practically every energy job. This "human oil spill" also includes promising students who aren't interested in energy careers.

The resulting shortage of qualified workers troubles companies, says Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry.

"Average energy employees tend to be in their 45-to-49-year[-old] range, and historically retirements have been somewhat early in the industry, at about 55," he said. "So that's pretty scary."

Of course, there are potential solutions in use now.

Almost half of college freshmen need remedial coursework. Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis says his institution makes sure educational gaps — especially in math — are filled.

"What we're doing now is intervening earlier, testing the students when they come in," he said. "If we don't think they're ready, we get 'em ready."

There are the obvious partnerships Oklahoma universities form with companies to prepare students for energy industry work. Take the University of Oklahoma's ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics or Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology's Chesapeake Energy Natural Gas Compression Training Center, for example.

Schools are also developing more programs for specialized jobs. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board went a step further. The agency has K-12 curricula in 95 percent of Oklahoma school districts in an effort to get students interested in energy careers as early as possible.

"Each of these curricula is age-appropriate and emphasizes the importance of math, science and computer technology, and how important they are in the oil and gas exploration industry, and how important they are to pursue careers in that industry," said OERB Chairman Tim Munson.

Now for a surprising problem with no clear solution.

"Women today make up almost 50 percent of the workforce," said C. Michael Ming, a manager with General Electric, speaking at an earlier conference session. "In the engineering field, they only make up 11 percent of the workforce. That's a gross underrepresentation, and a challenge to companies."

The issue was posed to the panel for discussion. Hargis says targeted recruitment will help.

"If you look at law school, or med school, or vet school or any of those, women are usually the majority now," he said. "So we've got to use the same approach we've used in those disciplines to get more women involved."

Sommers' view is that early interventions need to be made so little girls interested in science and engineering grow up to be scientists and engineers.

"There just aren't that many role models, and so we have to be very thoughtful about how we present the energy industry and engineering in particular as a fascinating, exciting place," he said.

Henry didn't talk about how the industry might attract more women, but he offered a surprising solution for the lack of skilled workers: Immigration reform.

"We need to welcome talented people into this country," he said. "We need their skills, particularly in engineering and in math, where all these other countries are doing better than we are."

Whatever the problems and solutions are, it's clear state leaders are committed to the energy industry for the foreseeable future.