The Wall Street Journal reported recently that America is in the midst of a long-term labor crisis. Experts have warned for years that a combination of decreasing birth rates, retiring Baby Boomers and shifting work preferences have left our economy with too few people to fill existing job openings, much less address the needs associated with an economic expansion.
Employer responses to the pandemic created more options for workers, such as flexible hours and remote work. Many workers opted for retirement or otherwise stepping away from the workplace, leaving more slots for employers to fill. If these circumstances are temporary, then the return to “normal” is taking its own time.
As a university president, I enjoy the regular opportunity to hear from the owners, managers and employees of local businesses, industries and service providers. Many of them report that they cannot hire enough qualified people to meet their needs. No industry or community appears to be spared, with reported shortages in the manufacturing sector, our area hospitals and schools. We are definitely short-handed in some important areas at Cameron University. The lack of a skilled workforce in our part of Oklahoma directly impacts our ability to provide services … which impacts each of us who live here.
The faculty and staff at Cameron University are steadfastly committed to broadening access to quality education while ensuring an opportunity that is both affordable and accessible. We recognize the need to address the skills gap between the currently available workforce and the projected workforce needs in education, healthcare, business, industry – and anywhere else it exists – and to do it at all levels of educational attainment. Strong partnerships with common education and career technology education are more important than ever.
So how is Cameron tackling this challenge?
First, we keep in mind that without workers, there is no workforce. Each worker begins as a student, and each student has unique aspirations, goals and needs. We have to listen and get to know each individual using our services. It is critical for us to deliver quality course content, regardless of a student’s ability to access technology or travel to different locations due to their work or home obligations. But it is equally critical that every other aspect of the student experience is provided at a high level of quality.
We work very hard to keep a CU degree as affordable as possible. Our combination of tuition, fees, room and board are among the lowest of any university in Oklahoma or elsewhere. Generous community support for scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, boost affordability even further.
More importantly, we work even harder to assure the value of the educational experience. We recognize the fact that we are counselors, advisors or even role models just as much as we are teachers. Creating a workforce is more than simply providing knowledge in a specific field. Students need to know how that knowledge fits into their intended career or profession, and to be prepared with the skills and habits of thought necessary to adapt to new career opportunities in the future.
We partner with other institutions to meet workforce needs. For example, we work with the University of Oklahoma and Western Oklahoma State College to offer nursing courses on our Lawton campus. We have teamed with Great Plains Technology Center to create respiratory therapists and radiologic technologists. We have agreements with WOSC and other community colleges to provide bachelor’s degree options to those who hold associate degrees in specific fields. We work with Rogers State University to offer teaching degrees in Claremore, and we partner with the University of Oklahoma to provide a path for Cameron students to earn engineering degrees.
Student support is crucial. Staff in CU’s Student Enrichment Center meet with students to help them successfully navigate the path to their dream careers. We share information and advice, help them obtain internships and job shadowing opportunities, provide assistance with resumes and cover letters, and teach our soon-to-be-graduates the professional skills they need to give “elevator pitches” and ace job interviews. Cameron offers associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but we also provide shorter paths to micro-credentials, including opportunities to take a single class and master a new skill that could make a student more qualified for a specific job.
It’s no secret that degrees and certifications lead to better job opportunities and better salaries. Building a workforce is more critical than ever if we hope to fill the vacancies that currently exist, as well as attract new industry and help current businesses expand.
John McArthur is president of Cameron University in Lawton.