Southern Oklahoma experiencing a worker shortage, statewide unemployment fell to 3.4%

Drew Butler
The Daily Ardmoreite

Last week the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the unemployment numbers for the month of July. Statewide unemployment fell to 3.4% with the numbers in Cater County coming in below the state average with 3.4% unemployment -- a figure more inline with pre-pandemic numbers such as those seen in the first months of 2020 when when unemployment was at 3.5% in January, February and March.

While the numbers are encouraging, businesses across the region are still struggling to find employees — as they were pre-pandemic — and help wanted signs are once again posted across the region. Mita Bates, president and CEO of the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce and the Ardmore Development Authority, said this problem is not unique to this area of the country or even any one industry.

"I have not talked to a peer — whether that's in the chamber world or the economic development world, whether that's in the northwest part of the country or the midwest or the south — who is not experiencing these exact same issues," Bates said. "It's a challenge for employers in all sectors and in all wage ranges, but the hospitality industry has been hit exceptionally hard because those jobs tend to be in the lower wage ranges. Those are some of the individuals who have seen some of the greatest impacts through the stimulus, the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. So depending on the individual it could be a little disincentive to go back to work."

Aubry Harris owner of Two Frogs Grill phrased the same sentiment more bluntly.

"The truth is people are getting paid to stay at home," he said. "The government keeps printing money and passing it out, and if you're a business owner you can't compete with that. You can't pay out more than you're taking in. Businesses just can't do that where as the federal government can."

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Gov. Kevin Stitt attempted to end coronavirus-related unemployment assistance programs in Oklahoma in June, echoing the argument that the additional payments were contributing to statewide worker shortage, however, an Oklahoma County district judge ordered the state to resume paying the $300 a week in additional unemployment benefits earlier this month. 

Harris said his restaurant is fortunate to be fully staffed at the moment, but pointed out finding workers is only part of the issue. Retaining those workers can be just as difficult. His last payroll had approximately 70 employees, and while many of them have been with the restaurant for several years some of the newer hires do not seem to be lasting very long.

"A lot of people want a paycheck but they don't want to work," he said. "They might come in and work for a few days then never show up again or never show up to work on time. So you end up having to hire two or three people in the hopes that maybe one will stay."

Bates said there is no one single answer to the workforce problem. In fact there are both short-term and long-term issues that need to be addressed.

"In the short term, we have been working with our area employers through the ADA and the chamber in a variety of ways to encourage opportunities for individuals to return to work or to improve their job skills," She said. "There have been numerous companies hosting job fairs and offering incentives including cash for new hires or for a referral of a new hire. So we're supporting those efforts."

She said the longterm issues are those that the community has faced since well before the pandemic and have to do with attracting workers into the area and putting the youth in a position to want to stay or return to the area after college..

"In the longterm we really need to grow our own workforce," she said. "That means starting in our middle schools to encourage our students to take a look at their opportunities, their interests, and where their talents lie and encouraging them to pursue those."

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When it comes to attracting new workers and encouraging locals to return to the area after college, the ADA is currently conducting a housing study to help pinpoint exactly where and how new housing could be built to encourage a growing workforce.

"One of the things our employers are telling us is that there is not enough housing," Bates said late last week. "So we're looking at all aspects of housing with a particular focus on what we're calling workforce housing which are homes within the price range of working class families. We have a group in town right now doing onsite interviews and we've driven to the edges of Carter County looking things over with them."

Bates said once the group leaves they will continue working on the study at their home office, and the results will be available within a few months.