Want a better job? Some companies are willing to pay your tuition

Thursday, July 3, 2014
By Kyle Arnold | Originally published in Tulsa World
03 Jul  2014

Managers at Pryor manufacturer American Castings are thrilled to pay the tuition bills for the 30 employees who took after-hours classes last year.

Human resources manager Lori Nichols said it’s one of the best ways to find the future leaders at the plant and to replace the skilled workers who are retiring.

“My plant manager is retiring in two or three years,” Nichols said. “We are going to have to replace him and a lot of other skilled workers.”

American Castings and other area manufacturers are in growth mode, fueled by a surging energy industry and an economy picking up momentum, especially locally.

But many employers are having trouble ramping up business when they can’t find the right workers — skilled workers.

“We would hire 20 people right now if we could,” Nichols said. “We have the work, we just need the people.”

They are now learning that if they need highly skilled workers, they are going to have to develop the employees themselves.

Closing the skills gap

Companies like American Castings are part of a growing trend of businesses partnering with local universities, colleges and vocational schools to close the “skills gap” by producing highly trained, experienced workers.

Gov. Mary Fallin has made workforce development education one of her main economic priorities and has touted the state’s higher education system as a recruiting tool for bringing new businesses into the state.

“Companies are very focused on workforce and put a lot of analysis on that before they decide to locate,” said Justin McLaughlin, vice president for economic development at the Tulsa Regional Chamber, who is charged with recruiting new companies. “Workforce is really becoming a big incentive. If you can provide a skilled workforce or train a workforce, you have a big advantage.”

Since Oklahoma’s economy started to recover from recession conditions in 2010, employers have complained of a “skills gap” in workers.

During lean times, companies improved productivity, upgraded machinery and relied on a smaller pool of workers. At the same time, the hiring and training of new employees was cut back. Now, as demand increases, companies need high-skill employees in all fields, from medicine and accounting to welding and machining.

“When times were tense, there wasn’t as much as an emphasis on training. It was just about staying afloat,” said Curtis Evans, an extension agent with the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance. “Now companies are starting to notice that they need to upgrade their employees’ skills.”

Investing in training

Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology has opened a branch in Pryor at the Mid-America Industrial Park to be closer to employees; and its main campus in Okmulgee has about 3,000 students almost entirely focused on high-skilled jobs, including advanced manufacturing and nursing.

Companies such as Orchid Paper and American Castings have sent dozens of employees through programs at the OSUIT Pryor campus, getting training in advanced manufacturing, equipment maintenance and electrical skills, as well as the science and fundamentals behind those fields.

OSUIT also partners with the nearby Rogers State University campus for general education classes so students can earn an associate’s degree if desired.

Tulsa Community College also has been creating more programs, partnering with local business owners to find out what kind of skills workers need to advance in their careers.

“A lot of businesses are learning that they need to start investing in supervisory training,” Evans said. “You often promote a guy off the shop floor because of how good he is at his job, but it doesn’t make him a good manager.”

Building up workers

Each week APSCO Inc. CEO Larry Mocha invites faculty from Tulsa Community College to his pneumatic truck equipment plant.

The classes, which he rotates most of his employees through, cover the newest quality control and part tracking standards in the manufacturing industry. Employees from some other area businesses are invited as well.

“I think of it as something you have to do, not just for business but for employees,” Mocha said.

Mocha said he has been working with Tulsa Community College and other groups to try to increase the number of skilled workers, including providing scholarships to high school students to earn a degree and take vocational classes.

“There has been such a void in high schools of classes in machine shop and wood shop and industrial-type education,” he said.

Earlier this year Mocha hired a full-time employee and created a nonprofit group to address the education problem.

Denver-based energy company DCP Midstream has started investing financially in OSUIT’s programs, as well creating an internship program for students, said Kenneth Eaton, manager of training operations at DCP’s Tulsa office.

“We hire a lot of students from OSUIT that go through the natural gas compression program,” Eaton said. “The instructors do a lot of hands-on training, and the workers understand the field, not just academic stuff.”

DCP has about 120 workers at each of its Tulsa and Oklahoma City offices and another 700 workers in the field at natural gas refineries and pipeline sites.

At American Castings, Nichols said she is willing to hire good workers, even if they don’t have advanced skills.

“We can train them, but they need to have a willingness to be here on time and a desire to do a good job,” she said. “They can work on the shop floor for a while, and once we know they are reliable, we’ll train them and give them a chance to succeed.”