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Oklahoma at Work

Attracting New Industries

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

Even as the state's unemployment rate has made a steady decline in recent months, the work of those whose job is to try and create more jobs is certainly not done.

It never is, especially in a state like Oklahoma where the economy can be very fragile.

The tendency for crude oil and natural gas prices to fluctuate wildly, and unexpectedly, has made it abundantly clear in recent decades that the bottom can fall out of the state's leading industry at, seemingly, a moment's notice. And when that happens, as it did in the 1980s and just two years ago, there are suddenly thousands of people looking for work.

For that reason, even in the best of times, state leaders remain vigilant about making the economy more diverse and as business-friendly as possible.

"Government, in and of itself, does not create jobs," stated Governor Mary Fallin, in her 2017 State of the State address, "but it should provide the right environment to grow the economy."

At the state Capitol, the governor and legislative leaders have certain notions as to what constitutes the 'right environment' to grow jobs, and typically those things tend to be low taxes and less regulation.

Away from the Capitol, where the rubber meets the road and economic development professionals work to recruit new business, the priorities are slightly different.. 

"Traditionally, it's been sort of one of three things," said Roy Williams, President and CEO of the Greater OKC Chamber of Commerce.

Williams says, companies are typically looking for access to either a specific market, specific materials, or specific talent. He says, on the scale of location priorities, the three used to be equal, but no longer -- talent is now tops.

"Because no matter if you're close to your market or if you're close to your supply," Williams stated, "if you don't have good people working for you, if you don't have the talent, you're not going to be successful."

Ideally, a company could find all the employee talent it needs in the community where it's located. In many cases, however, companies will have to recruit workers, and Williams says that's not as easy as it once was -- people won't automatically move just for a job, the location has to be desirable. He says, right now, Oklahoma City is.

"We're a millennial magnet, we're one of the hot metros in the U.S. in attracting Millennials," Williams explained. "Some metros would say, 'You can have all of mine'.. but that is one of the next generations, and you want that talent pool here."

Another hot location right now -- one of the most desirable in the country -- is Salt Lake City, Utah.

"So, we've had three really big wins this year that we're very proud of," said Salt Lake City Economic Development Director Lara Fritts.

In a recent Skype interview, Fritts said construction of two major distribution centers (for UPS and Post Brands) and expansion of a biomedical company (Biometrics) have helped make Utah Forbes magazine's #1 most business-friendly state, and Salt Lake City number two in a ranking of metro job creation.

"We talk a lot in Salt Lake City about our 'Team Utah' approach," Fritts said, "we're very proud of our relationship with our state."

Fritts says that collaborative relationship has been key in providing the thing she says is most critical in creating an environment for job growth -- predictability.

"Time is money, when it comes to corporate relocation," Fritts stated, "and so everything a city can do to make that process more efficient, absolutely will win the day."

Another winning move, Fritts says, was made at the suggestion of local business leaders--hiring a specialist to connect companies with community colleges and their students.

"Someone that would work directly with the companies to help identify community college programs and identify those that are potentially underemployed right now," Fritts said, "and helping to figure out a way to continue to make sure that we have a pipeline of talent for these companies to be able to continue to grow."

Developing a pipeline of talent is also a priority in Oklahoma, but experts say, state leaders aren't helping by failing to adequately fund education.

"And that's going to come back and bite us," said OKC Chamber President Williams, "there's no doubt about it."

Williams says, lawmakers need to understand, not only funding decisions, but running controversial bills can undermine a state or city's otherwise solid recruiting effort.

"Public policy can do that -- ask North Carolina," said Williams, referring to fallout from the controversial bathroom law, HB2, that lawmakers in that state enacted last year.

"The CEO of the Charlotte chamber is a good friend of mine," explained Williams. "He's told me the down and dirty things that happened in Charlotte, in terms of companies who said, 'We're not expanding, we were going to'...companies that said, 'We were looking at you,' but then said, 'Nope, you're off our list."

Williams, who worked as a site selection consultant earlier in his career, says he's seen it firsthand.

"When you're in the hunt for a project, and they're trying to figure out how to eliminate four of the five, so they end up with one," Williams admitted, "they start looking for stuff to eliminate you -- that's how the process works."

Oklahoma's low cost of living can help offset potential negatives, and Williams says, so do incentives and tax breaks. But he points out, emphatically, "Incentives don't guarantee you anything, and won't get you anything, other than get you eliminated...if you don't have them."

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