Oklahoma Baptist University

Position Connects Commerce Department, Education

Business and education leaders have always brainstormed about their needs for a better-equipped work force. But those conversations are more formal and frequent in today's knowledge-based economy.

The Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education recently welcomed a new staff member to serve as the link in those discussions. Robin McAlister, who spent several years in Gov. Brad Henry's office, is the coordinator for work force and economic development and commerce liaison. The position, which was created in 2007, is funded by the state regents, and is part of the 1987 state statute that higher education and the Commerce Department keep in touch.

In today's changing world, the type of education a state's students are receiving could mean the difference between a business deciding to move or expand in Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma is following the national trend of becoming more of an information-based economy, but we're still not at the national average in number of college graduates in our state," said Tony Hutchison, a vice chancellor for the state regents. "Today, companies want to know our percentage of college graduates and our capacity to produce more.

"An employer wants to know: 'Do you have the capacity to take care of this plant or research facility if we come here?' ‘How many engineers do you have?' 'How many engineers do you produce each year?' and questions like that," he said.

McAlister said that charge makes her part investigator, part translator in discovering the state's resources and giving them to the Commerce Department. In turn, she shares with colleges and universities what Commerce sees as high-demand fields.

McAlister said her recent work has been gathering information from institutions about their solar and wind activities -- topics of great interest to potential employers.

"Within renewable energy, there are a lot of emerging industries, and higher ed is trying to be responsive to that with signature curriculum," she said. "In a difficult economic time, our goal is to leverage Commerce and the state regents' resources to impact the state's economy and business recruitment. I see us doing that by increasing interaction between the agencies, communicating the needs and resources of each."

Hutchison said the state regents have been involved with the Commerce Department in several other ways. They include the Governor's Cup, a business plan competition for college students, and the Partnership Recognition Program, in which college students team with small businesses for internship programs.

The state regents' office, in conjunction with the Commerce Department and the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, also has developed a database to track college graduates in the work force to see the areas where they're working, Hutchison said. That information is matched with the employment outlook to see if Oklahoma is producing enough or too many graduates in different areas.

The state regents' office also has a new program, called Making Place Matter, in which all higher education institutions are connecting with their communities, he said. Oklahoma is the only state in which all its higher education institutions are participating, he said.

"Each campus is asked to engage not just their local business community, but their social service providers, hospitals and others to do a needs assessment for their areas," Hutchison said. "What does that area need to improve quality of life and the economy, and what can the school do to contribute to that? The college in that area can be the convener to help them problem-solve. For example, if they have a growing elderly population, what are some innovative ways they can improve their Meals on Wheels and transportation to hospitals, along with the traditional work force needs."

Robin Parrish McAlister is a 1999 OBU graduate, and April Wilkerson is a 1993 OBU graduate.

Copyright 2010 The Journal Record. Used with permission.

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