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Oklahoma City sees lowest unemployment in decades, credits diversifying industries

Oklahoma City sees lowest unemployment rate in recent history, credits diversifying industries
Posted at 5:25 PM, Jan 06, 2022

Like many businesses in the service industry, Chicken N Pickle is looking for workers.

“We’re always looking to hire people,” said Eli Loya, the general manager at Chicken N Pickle. “High turnover ratio, that's always been a thing for the service industry. The people we’ve talked to before in the past and stuff, one of the main reasons for them leaving was they’re burnt out.”

Loya is more aware of now as he works with employees on schedules to fit their needs better to keep them around.

“You can go downtown. You can go to midtown. You'll see ‘help wanted’ or ‘now hiring’ and stuff,” he explained.

Signs like these are up across the U.S. People looking for jobs seemingly have their choice. However, in Oklahoma City, the number of potential candidates is low.

This city has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, at 1.7%, according to stats from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in early January 2022. For comparison, the nation sits around 4.2%.

“Every one of us is facing this problem. Oklahoma City isn't alone at all. There's a talent shortage everywhere, and it’s a struggle. And what it’s doing in a lot of places is changing business models,” said president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Roy Williams.

He’s been with the chamber since 2002.

Williams said the city has focused on diversifying the economy.

“Oklahoma City’s history has been one of oil and gas, energy," Williams said. "It being a dominant economic sector."

Williams said over the past three decades they’ve focused on building a place where businesses want to be.

One way they did so was by passing MAPS. MAPS was a $350 million initiative created to revitalize the city and improve their national image funded by sales tax.

Oklahoma City voters approved the new tax on themselves in 1993, and the program is still running in different forms today.

It all seemed to pay off. Corporate headquarters, fulfillment centers, and a number of aerospace companies have chosen to move here.

This includes Skydweller Aero, which relocated here in 2020.

The company’s CEO Robert Miller wrote in a statement:

“Skydweller decided to locate in Oklahoma City in 2020 for a multitude of reasons. This is a vibrant city that has flourished over the last two decades, bringing new businesses and new opportunities to the state. With the dedication and hard work of federal and state officials and Oklahoma Department of Commerce, aerospace has become the fastest growing, and second largest, industry in Oklahoma. This provides a wealth of opportunity for businesses like Skydweller, as there are more resources, partnership opportunities, and talent than ever before. We have solidified multiple research contracts with the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University (along with University of Tulsa), allowing us to accelerate technology that will, not only, increase the efficiency and endurance of our aircraft, but push state-of-the-art technology across the industry. We see many opportunities ahead for aerospace in Oklahoma City and are honored to be part of that journey.”

Other cities have noticed.

“Prior to COVID, we would get two to four cities a year who would come here and spend two to four days here. Jacksonville, Florida came here for four days with 140 people just to understand why is Oklahoma City doing so well,” Williams said.

Economist Travis Roach said this puts the city in a good place as the U.S. goes through what economists are calling the “Great Resignation."

The number of quits increased in November 2021 to a series high of 4.5 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The industry hit hardest with people leaving was accommodation and food services.

“We have a great reallocation going on right now, and a city like Oklahoma City is able to take advantage of that because we have a diversified workforce. We have a smart workforce. And employers are able to really come in and set up shop and do well,” Roach, associate professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Central Oklahoma, said.

Roach said there’s still another group of potential employees out there that we’re not seeing right now.

”We still have a lot of folks who are on the outside of the labor market looking in for no other factor than that this pandemic sticks around,” he said.

Which – for managers like Loya – means the relationships between an employer and an employee is more important than ever as businesses work to keep their employees in such a tight labor market.

“Going forward, I think it's been a great wake up call for businesses and people in that position to hire people," Loya said. "Don’t expect your employees to work every weekend, cancel their private life for you. We have to meet them halfway."