Woodward, Okla. —
Oklahoma's state economy is currently facing a number of unique challenges with regards to the education of its workforce.
Dr. Robert Sommers discussed these workforce challenges and what he believes to be an opportunity to address them during Monday's monthly Woodward Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Sommers is the director of the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education and also serves as the state secretary of education and workforce development.
Sommers said some of the educational challenges include that often educational reform has centered around improving academic performance, without much progress being realized.
For example, he said Oklahoma's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ratings "have remained flat" and the state's "graduation rates have not changed much."
The reason, Sommers said, is because "we in policy and leadership roles have not been clear in what it takes to be college and career ready. We've focused a lot on academics and assessment, but we've not linked how those assessments help to make students ready for the next step."
And in the workforce, Sommers said challenges include "significant unemployment issues while some well-paying jobs are still going unfilled." This is a result of "a skills to job matching problem," he said.
Sommers explained that with the current job market, no longer is strong academics enough. For high paying jobs in today's market, he said workers also often need technical skills.
"This leaves us with a strange dilemma where we have highly educated people who can't get a job," he said.
For Sommers, the answer to this dilemma and other issues with workforce education is CareerTech schools.
And he doesn't mean as an alternative to common education or higher education.
"No longer should we think academics or CareerTech, we need to think both," he said.
Sommers said the benefits can be seen while students are still getting their education and also once they go out into the workforce.
For example, he said students who participate in CareerTech "often score higher on assessment tests and many go on to college."
The reason, he said is because by teaching students skills that they will use for a specific occupation, those students are allowed to realize the relevance of their education and directly see how it will impact their chosen careers.
Furthermore, after students graduate and get jobs, Sommers said studies are finding that "people with college degrees and industry credentials out-earn those with just a degree or just credentials."
CareerTech also helps students explore different career opportunities while they're still young.
"We can help students make career choices based on facts and not what's on the latest popular sitcom," Sommers said.
In addition, he said CareerTech helps professionals stay flexible, especially as "our economy is changing dramatically."
Because CareerTech offers education opportunities for a variety of career fields, he said, "we allow students to make shifts as the economy changes."
"Our goal in CareerTech is that for every Oklahoman there is a job and for every company in our state there is a workforce," Sommers said.