TULSA, Okla. — Oklahoma’s unemployment rate is now lower than before the pandemic hit leading to lockdowns, restrictions, and some businesses shutting down.
The latest available numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Oklahoma’s unemployment rate at 2.7% in March of this year compared to 3.2% in Feb. 2020.
So why are so many places hiring and having trouble getting people to work?
Abbey Davis, an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business, says look no further than the medical marijuana industry which grew tremendously during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Forty-five thousand Oklahomans are working in that industry,” Davis said. “They were likely in positions of retail and hospitality, positions that were likely lower paying and now they’re being paid more. And we’re seeing our hospitality and restaurant industry being hit really hard right now.”
Davis helped conduct a survey of 1,200 people across Oklahoma who are either working full-time, part-time or unemployed to find out what they’re looking for in a job coming out of the pandemic. I think the biggest surprise to me is that we asked them to rank some benefits and what’s important to them in a job. And flexible scheduling was actually a little bit more important in some areas than healthcare. Which is huge to me. Healthcare, next to a salary, that’s why we work is to have those health benefits,” said Davis.
ONE COMPANY SETTING THE EXAMPLE
Davis points to AAON in southwest Tulsa as a company setting the example in this new era, post pandemic work environment. AAON manufactures commercial air conditioning units at its massive facility. Employees work 3 days on and 4 days off in 12-hour shifts, then work 4 days on and 3 days off.
That’s what attracted Nick Hosley, a father of three, to get a job there a few months ago. ”It’s like a small vacation every week,” Hosley said. He left the landscaping industry feeling burned out and looking for a different opportunity. AAON is also a second chance employer. Twenty percent of their workforce may have a criminal background or some other barrier keeping them from getting hired elsewhere.
“We just really feel everyone deserves a second chance,” AAON’s Director of Administration Casey Kidwell said. “All of us do dumb things in life, make bad decisions and who are we to judge or keep someone from earning a living based on that.”
Sierra Sparks has been promoted 5 times in 3 years. Something she never saw happening after a brief time in prison for a drug conviction. ”I spent about 6 months in prison and when I did get out I knew if I was doing the same thing I was before I went in, that I wouldn’t go anywhere in life,” Sparks said. “The way that they do the second chance hiring has given me the opportunity to provide for my family. My kids live with me now.” And she now has a 401k, something she thought she would never have.
AAON matches an employee’s 401k contributions 175% up to 6% of their pay and matches 175% Health Savings Account contributions. The company also takes part in profit sharing, meaning employees receive a quarterly check based on how well the company is doing. That extra pay will help Zahidullah Almas. He’s one of more than 70 Afghan refugees the company recently hired.
He’s a riveter now, but in the Afghan military he did carpentry and worked alongside U.S. soldiers. When the U.S. military abruptly left Afghanistan in August of 2020, Almas, his wife and their baby boy got the chance to move to Oklahoma and start a new life.
He describes Tulsa as, “a beautiful town and the people are friendly.” He said he couldn’t believe he was coming to America. “I felt like, I’m dreaming. So that is amazing for me.” AAON is making adjustments to help their new Afghan employees feel like they belong.
“We’ve learned a lot, it hasn’t been smooth,” Casey Kidwell said. “There are obviously language barriers. We’ve made changes. We now have foot wash basins in the break rooms. Learning about their religion, their needs, what they need while they’re at work.” Kidwell says they’re taking on another 20 Afghan refugees. They’re adding 200 more positions. Their goal is to help every employee succeed and feel like they matter.
Kidwell says they’ve increased starting wages and really started listening to what employees are saying. “We’re not spending a lot of time debating and talking about what we need to do but really just taking action and making improvements as quickly as we can,” Kidwell said.
“I think that’s really important for any organization especially today, you’ve got to be listening to your employees. They’re not going to let you get away with lip service anymore.” Abbey Davis with OSU says more companies need to do the same. “The status quo of how we work is completely shattered. If we think we’re going back to how we were two years ago, it’s never going to happen. So, by just trying to go back to normal means that you’re going to have a hard time being able to attract and retain workers.”
WHERE ARE COMPANIES LOOKING FOR WORKERS?
That’s where Goodwill Industries comes in. You may know the organization as a place to drop off donations of used clothing and items to be sold in their retail stores. Or maybe it’s where you shop and find a good deal.
You may not know the money from those sales helps provide job training for all sorts of industries, no matter your background, physical ability or financial status.” A lot of employers are coming to us asking for talent,” said Parrish McDaris who runs Tulsa Works through Goodwill Industries. “Wages are rising, benefits are being added and the market’s competitive so we are able to provide job training for multiple industries and this is available to anyone in the community.”
He says a lot of people don’t know that Goodwill has training for so many different industries including computer classes to earn a Google project management certificate or a digital marketing certificate to work for Facebook (now called Meta).
The costs are minimal and free in some cases for people on government assistance. This job training could be for a new job or to help someone earn a promotion where they currently work. Goodwill also has a Hospitality learning lab. It’s set up like a hotel room. Students can learn how to properly make the bed, clean the room and vacuum on the way out.
Katherine Triplett is a Hospitality student who is from the Philippines. “My background is in hospitality but before that I worked for Starbucks,” she said. “I’d like to work in a school or be a hospitality instructor.” Another student, Estella Saucedo, wants more people in Tulsa’s growing Latino community to know about Goodwill. “I would like for them to know that the opportunity to come here to the Goodwill Tulsa Works Career Academy is here for them to improve themselves. Goodwill is very supportive. It’s a great foundation. I feel so grateful for this opportunity.”
Kejohn Davidson is also grateful for Goodwill Industries. He left the restaurant industry to pursue a new career as a forklift operator. “I just recently got married, so I’m looking into better, different career opportunities to support my family, my wife and everything. ”He just landed a job with AAON. “I took the forklift test, the written test and everything and I passed. I’ve actually gotten hired so the program was a success.”
To see more success stories like Davidson’s, Abbey Davis with OSU says companies need to consider doing a great reset and make some big changes to their hiring practices, including:
- Consider hiring people 55 and older even if they are overqualified.
- Not requiring a license if the position does not require driving a company vehicle.
- Stop drug testing for certain jobs given the hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana users in our state.
”I think we have to get outside again shattering the status quos of company policies. We have to figure out how can we be flexible and adaptable,” Davis said.
©2022 Cox Media Group