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Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn: Unemployed people are not lazy; they need stronger state resources

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Labor Day has been a national holiday since President Grover Cleveland signed the designation into law in 1894. It is always a day to appreciate the people in our labor force who keep our country moving forward, but currently we do not have the necessary workforce in our state.

Keeping businesses open requires people to fill the jobs. Our average unemployment rate is 5.09%, but the rate is currently 2.7%. The oft-heard complaint that people are lazy, taking government assistance, and refuse to work is not true.

We simply do not have enough warm bodies to fill the open job slots.

Two ways to address and fix this problem are right before us. We have one of the best CareerTech systems in the U.S. The local boards make sure that they are filling the current workforce needs in their areas by being nimble and quick to act for employers they serve.

Currently there are approximately 11,000 people on waiting lists to get into these programs. With a record amount of dollars in the Rainy-Day Fund, this would seem to merit investment in the system by eliminating the backlog of applicants waiting to garner the education to fill local workforce needs.

Secondly are the pools of people who could be filling these job shortages but are often overlooked. One of those pools is women of childbearing years. 

More than half of our counties are deemed “child care deserts,” meaning that only one slot is available for every 10 that are needed. Not everyone has the privilege of a family member to help with child care, and rural Oklahoma is desperately in need of quality child care centers.

Formerly incarcerated people are another underutilized pool of applicants. In a state with some of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, we still have many businesses who refuse to hire former felons.

One of every nine citizens in our state has a former felony conviction. If we are not giving second chances to these applicants, we are losing a huge portion of potential employees, as well as not giving our citizens second chances and the ability to break cycles of poverty in their families.

Last are the refugees and immigrants who are already living in our state, holding menial labor positions but who would be able to do so much more if allowed. I am certainly not advocating for open borders but instead for common sense reforms that might allow hard-working people who have lived here for decades to do more, thereby helping them and helping us.

Lastly, we should invest in our state and its citizens. We are a bottom five state in all economic indicators, which makes it very difficult to recruit people to move to Oklahoma.

Oklahoma City made a bold move in 1993 by initiating the first MAPS project. Investment in OKC has continued ever since, hearkening the movie line “if you build it, they will come.” Investment in the trajectories that change our future on a state level would allow us to recruit more individuals to our state and keep many of our young people from leaving.

All these ideas may seem simple or make common sense, but they are not being done. I hope you will join me in advocating for their acceptance and investment.

Leslie Osborn is serving a second term as the Oklahoma labor commissioner and represented District 47 in the House from 2008 to 2018.


See original opinion article for the Tulsa World here.

Last Modified on Aug 31, 2023
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