Creating Jobs in the Heartland -- Tulsa Style

Creating Jobs in the Heartland -- Tulsa Style

Oct. 22, 2018
In an unusual collaboration to bring jobs to Tulsa, the George Kaiser Family Foundation bought the land, the city provided the infrastructure and the educational institutions are training non-traditional employees to bring more manufacturing to the city.

Sometimes there are unlikely partnerships. And sometimes it’s exactly that unique collaboration that can move a community forward.

That’s what’s happening in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It’s common for an economic development organization to partner with local, city and state organizations to come up with development plans for job creation. What’s usual is for a non-profit family foundation to get into the business of purchasing land in an effort to attract manufacturing companies.

This foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), is funded by Kaiser who is the owner of GBK Corp. the parent of Kaiser-Francis Oil Company and also a major shareholder of a number of diversified businesses. But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is that he created this foundation because he felt lucky that he a lot of advantages growing up and he wants to provide those same opportunities to all children.

His mission is clear. 

Tulsa is a land of opportunity. A generous and welcoming community, this city is not bound by traditional conventions. The George Kaiser Family Foundation is dedicated to making Tulsa the best city for children to be born, grow and succeed. 

And what better way to ensure the success of children than to enable them to be gainfully employed.  So the GKFF got to work. It bought a 117-acre parcel in an area that needed help and turned it into the Peoria-Mohawk Business Park.

"Generally speaking, this area has among the lowest median income and highest unemployment rates in the city, and therefore, infusion of economic activity was highly needed,” said  Josh Miller, program direction for the GKFF Foundation  Additionally, the site is next to existing assets like Educare II, Hawthorne Elementary, Tulsa Tech and Comanche Park (largest Tulsa housing authority property).  Landing employers will infuse a large amount of economic opportunity; a major step toward achieving our greater goal of revitalizing the neighborhood into a vibrant, mixed-income community."

The city of Tulsa stepped up as well and provided $10 million in new infrastructure. And they are offering incentives to manufacturing companies that locate here. Those incentives are aimed specifically at companies that will bring in well-paying, sustainable jobs. And the community is willing to help achieve that by offering rigorous workforce training.

 A customized training is available through a partnership with Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, Tulsa Tech, and Tulsa Community WorkAdvance. 

The workforce model provided by the Tulsa Community WorkAdvance program is also unique in that they use a sector-based, dual-customer approach to meet the needs of job seekers and employers.

“Our program was thoroughly tested before we came to Tulsa, “ explains Karen Pennington, managing director of Tulsa Community WorkAdvance. “It was designed for employers as we are well aware of their struggles trying to fill jobs.”

The program was part of a 5-year randomized controlled trial research study with four national sites to test the effectiveness of the WorkAdvance model. This rigorous evaluation compared a program group who received WorkAdvance services to a control group who did not receive services. The model has been proven to help people earn more money, complete training, find employment and secure a job with benefits and advancement opportunities.

To prepare students Pennington worked closely with Matt Litterell, who is the Director of Business and Industry Services at Tulsa Technology Center. Tulsa Technology Center has a long-standing successful program and attracts more students than they can handle.

Almost 50 years ago this group created an independent school district around Tulsa and worked with high schools to bring students into the program. But today only 20% of the students are coming from high school, LIterell explained. The majority of students now are adults who are seeking new training or companies sending employees for additional training.

Given their success, Pennington saw that Tulsa Technology Center would be an excellent resource to train people from underserved populations. That would include those without high school degrees, those who have GED and also high school graduates. Resources for this group are scarce and many are unable to afford long and expensive programs.

“We assess students to find out their areas of interests and ability and then provide the appropriate program for them which then feeds directly into a job existing in the community,” explains Pennington. The technical training, job placement, and extensive career coaching services are free.

Once accepted into a program there is a two-year commitment during which WorkAdvance pays for not only the education but the tools necessary for the student to be successful. That would include PPE equipment and bus fare if necessary.

“We remove any obstacles or speed bumps that would have in the past preventing this population from getting these jobs,” says Pennington.

And sometimes the obstacle includes teaching soft skills. “WorkAdvance does a great job of preparing the individuals and working through their issues,” says  Littrell. “We just don’t have the time or resources to do that and they do it in a time frame that employers need and with a very specific focus.”

With this level of collaboration, the feeling is strong that the Peoria-Mohawk Business Park will attract the companies necessary to create a vibrant community.

And having a vibrant community is at the heart of the GKFF objective which is why they become involved in this project in the first place.

In a letter on the website explaining why this is so important to him and his family, Kaiser shared his personal situation.

“We have chosen to focus these efforts in the community that welcomed my family from Nazi Germany. By doing so we hope to pursue the best approaches, drawing from the experience of others, and make a measurable impact. If we can be successful, then maybe we will more closely approach the ideal of equal opportunity throughout the United States and the world.” 

About the Author

Adrienne Selko | Senior Editor

Focus: Workforce, Talent 

Follow Me on Twitter: @ASelkoIW

Bio: Adrienne Selko has written about many topics over the 17 years she has been with the publication and currently focuses on workforce development strategies. Previously Adrienne was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck? which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics and EHS Today

Editorial mission statement: Manufacturing is the enviable position of creating products, processes and policies that solve the world’s problems. When the industry stepped up to manufacture what was necessary to combat the pandemic, it revealed its true nature. My goal is to showcase the sector’s ability to address a broad range of workforce issues including technology, training, diversity & inclusion, with a goal of enticing future generations to join this amazing sector.

Why I find manufacturing interesting: On my first day working for a company that made medical equipment such as MRIs, I toured the plant floor. On every wall was a photo of a person, mostly children. I asked my supervisor why this was the case and he said that the work we do at this company has saved these people’s lives. “We never forget how important our work is and everyone’s contribution to that.” From that moment on I was hooked on manufacturing.

I have talked with many people in this field who have transformed their own career development to assist others. For example, companies are hiring those with disabilities, those previously incarcerated and other talent pools that have been underutilized. I have talked with leaders who have brought out the best in their workforce, as well as employees doing their best work while doing good for the world. 

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