Candidate Kevin Stitt campaigned on making Oklahoma a top-10 state for job growth. In seeking re-election, the governor touts data showing more than 40,000 more jobs created in Oklahoma since he took office.
He points to the state’s unemployment rate, which emerged from a global pandemic at a historic low of 2.3% in February. He campaigns on a personal income rate that has grown by $3,000 since 2019.
Our State Under Stitt
One in a series of stories looking at Gov. Kevin Stitt’s record as he runs for a second term. Previously:
The metrics Stitt publishes on an online dashboard to monitor Oklahoma’s economic progress paint a less rosy picture.
Particularly frustrating to Stitt is data showing nearly 40% of working-age Oklahomans were not in the workforce as of September. They are not only jobless, but they aren’t looking for work, meaning they aren’t counted in the unemployment rate.
“It’s super frustrating,” Stitt said during an interview with the Oklahoma Watch staff, “That means about 39% of the people are at home. Maybe they’re taking care of children right now. Maybe they have an aged parent. But there are a lot of people that just think the workforce has passed them by.”
He’s repeatedly pushed the idea of unemployment benefits and other forms of state help being “a trampoline, not a hammock.”
To that end, he cut off a $300 weekly supplemental federal unemployment benefit for Oklahomans in June 2021, three months early and with the economy still emerging from the effects of the pandemic. He countered with a “back-to-work initiative” offering $1,200 to the first 20,000 eligible Oklahomans who could hold a job for six weeks. The move was aimed at supporting restaurants, bars and other employers who reported a shortage of workers.
“We had businesses telling me that people were specifically not coming back to work when they were trying to recruit them because they were getting state unemployment and federal unemployment during that period of time,” Stitt said.
Last spring he signed into law a measure reducing the maximum weeks Oklahomans are eligible for unemployment benefits to 16 from 26 barring another pandemic-level event.
“I believe the right thing to do is to have more of an accordion. You shouldn’t have 25 weeks of unemployment if jobs are plentiful. You should bring that down to encourage people back into the workforce,” he said.
The number of Oklahomans in the workforce is similar to 2019, but they are working in different industries because of the pandemic, according to Chad Wilkerson, who directs the Oklahoma City branch of the Kansas City Federal Reserve. People have left nursing and residential care and contractual oil and gas to work delivery, warehouse and fast-food service jobs. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the fastest-growing jobs in the state are the lowest paying.
In his first State of the State address, Stitt promised to “reimagine” the economy by opening new businesses and diversifying the marketplace. Last year there were 83 announcements for new and expanding businesses compared to 52 in 2019, according to the state Department of Commerce.
These new and expanding businesses are arriving in sectors like technology, manufacturing, medicine, sustainability and transportation and are expected to bring tens of thousands of jobs over the next few years. Stitt said he is proud of the state commerce department’s recruitment efforts, citing employers such as Amazon, Hilliary Communications, U.S. Autoforce and the electric car company Canoo that will be paying salaries near and above the state’s $54,000 average personal income.
Stitt committed a record $15 million to Canoo from the Quick Action Closing Fund to secure the half-a-billion-dollar investment the company promised to make in Pryor, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Canoo’s “Mega-microfactory,” technology hub and software development center are expected to bring over 2,000 jobs to Oklahoma next year, according to the commerce department.
Should those projections be met, they could help address shortcomings in two other metrics on Stitt’s dashboard. Oklahoma ranks 32nd in the nation in real gross domestic product growth — the broadest measure of the state’s economic progress — below states like Texas, Florida, Nevada and California.
The state’s average personal income ranks 41st nationally. Stitt said jobs in energy and manufacturing will drive that average to top-10 standards. Coupled with a low cost of living relative to states like California and New York, Stitt called Oklahoma an “arbitrage” opportunity for businesses trying to relocate. The business term refers to when profits are made by selling assets in expensive markets and buying them again in cheaper ones.
Regarding the cost of living and the quality of labor for how much it costs, Stitt said Oklahoma is the place to be.
“It won’t always be that way because it’ll eventually catch up with some of the other areas of the country,” Stitt said, “But right now when you take advantage of that, we continue to drive up.”
He said Oklahoma is ranked 11th in domestic migration because of his “pro-freedom and pro-business” approach to governing.
Stitt said going forward the state is not only recruiting businesses that will pay well but investing in workforce development programs like Skills to Rebuild in Bartlesville, which trains Oklahomans in and out of grade school to take full-time jobs in automotive collision repair and service, construction, cosmetology and practical nursing, among other professions.
“We are constantly trying to get people back in the workforce,” he said, “I talk to businesses and when they say they can’t hire people, they have to think about joining that 39%. It’s a real problem.”
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.