I hope you saw this story in Monday’s editions of The Oklahoman about the Saab Group, a Swedish Aerospace firm, reportedly passing on Oklahoma as the location to build a new military trainer jet because of workforce concerns.
If you didn’t read it, click this link to catch you up to date:
The reporting by Oklahoman reporter Dale Denwalt made the words of Oklahoma City businessman Phil Busey seem almost prophetic. The story quoted State Sen. Adam Pugh, who said that the Saab Group decided it would not be able to find enough skilled workers to sustain its workforce at an Oklahoma location.
Saab reportedly wanted to know if it could find people to work at the plant. ‘In the end, they decided they couldn’t, and so they’re taking their business somewhere else,’ state Sen. Adam Pugh told members of Leadership Oklahoma at a recent aerospace forum.
Busey is founder and CEO of a company called Delaware Resource Group (DRG), minority-owned aerospace industry federal defense contractor. DRG employs upwards of 700 people, including software engineers, worldwide who support contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as major aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Busey along with Debbie Cox, my colleague from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST). Our interview was the basis for an OCAST video and a column I wrote on behalf of the agency. You can read it and watch the video interview here.
We were surprised by the urgency that Busey showed in advocating for an improvement in public education and workforce development across our state.
“Our challenges really come back to the issues of workforce development,” Busey told us. “Public education is the No. 1 challenging issue we see here in Oklahoma.”
Thousands of aerospace positions in the state remain unfilled because there aren’t enough Oklahomans equipped with STEM skills – science, technology, education and mathematics, Busey said.
That means that we need to build a deeper pool of young Oklahomans equipped with STEM skills that are critical to the sustainability of the state’s aerospace industry.
But it goes beyond workforce development, he said. It’s also about the image of our state that is reflected in legislation like the recent open carry law that allows virtually anyone in Oklahoma to carry a gun without a license or shooter education.
“The challenge is that we are having to rebrand ourselves,” Busey said. “The social legislation issues, the open carry issues and the public education issues all have to be addressed. Because people really don’t understand who we are … We have to talk to them about what our culture is really like, who we are, what kind of values we have, that we are inclusive, that we have all types of development going on with MAPS and the successes we have had downtown.”
The bottom line is that there are currently between 1,500 and 2,000 open positions here in Oklahoma in the high paying aerospace industry. We have to fill that pipeline.
Busey has organized his own working group of community, education and business leaders to brainstorm ways to enhance Oklahoma’s workforce development and improve our image.
“We’re trying to develop pipelines with our universities,” Busey said. “And then be able to talk with people who we need to recruit from outside Oklahoma that it is a good place to live. We all don’t walk around with 45s on our hips. Public education, we have to do something to improve that. It is a deal breaker.”