Budget & Tax, Economy

Stitt considering expansion of ‘Skills to Rebuild’ program

March 26, 2021

Mike Brake

An Oklahoma career tech superintendent who created a 2020 program to help retrain mid-career adults displaced by the pandemic wants to take that successful program statewide.

Lindel Fields, who will retire later this year as superintendent of Tri County Career Tech, serving Washington, Nowata, and Osage Counties, originally used $1 million in COVID-19 relief funds authorized by Gov. Kevin Stitt to create the Skills to Rebuild program. Its targeted population was workers who had lost jobs or had their work schedules severely curtailed by pandemic shutdowns and layoffs.

Under Skills to Rebuild, they qualified for scholarships from the state grant to enroll in fast-track education programs designed to shift them into what Fields called “gratifying, upwardly mobile careers.”

The market was clearly ready for such a program. Fields said last summer that after an initial announcement of the scholarships, the school had 388 applications for 375 slots.

Fields said the program has had “quite a bit of success with a completion rate of 85 percent.” In addition, at least 85 percent of program graduates have been placed in jobs paying an average of more than $13 per hour, a three dollars per hour increase over their pre-program earnings.

“To date, we have had over 3,500 applicants,” he said, noting that some local funds have been added to the original grant to keep the program working.

Now, Fields said, he has asked the governor’s office to use new COVID relief funds to support $10.3 million in scholarship funding for Skills to Rebuild programs at 15 other career tech centers.

“Those funds would support programs for some 11,800 more students to move them into jobs paying an average of $17 per hour,” Fields said, noting that many of those employers have already been identified as awaiting trained workers. “That would result in an annual payroll boost of from $307 to $350 million.”

At the top Oklahoma income tax rate of five percent, that increased income would generate a potential $17.5 million in income tax revenue for the state in just the first year, easily repaying the initial scholarship investment.

Some of the funds would come from existing original CARES Act dollars allocated to Oklahoma while others would be drawn from the more recent Biden administration recovery legislation, Fields said.

“We have tried to keep the program as simple as possible,” he said. “People want stability, and a good job provides stability.”

Fields said he delivered his new proposal to the governor’s office in mid-March.

Charlie Hannema, communications director for Gov. Kevin Stitt, indicated that the governor could look favorably on Fields’ proposal.

“We are very pleased to see the many success stories that resulted from the initial Skills to Rebuild program and are actively considering ways to expand that program and give similar opportunities to more Oklahomans,” he said. Fields said the governor has accepted an invitation to visit Tri County Career Tech in early April.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has proposed a program there that mirrors Tri County’s original model and Fields’ proposed statewide expansion. Dubbed “Get There Faster,” it would allocate $75 million to expand vocational training programs in Florida.

Vocational training would seem to be ideally suited for addressing the job losses associated with the pandemic since it can craft and direct specific training programs to fit local job markets. It is also faster than other post-secondary education programs, especially two- and four-year colleges and universities.

According to the Association for Career and Technology Education, there are at least 30 million jobs in America paying in excess of $55,000 annually that do not require a college degree. Oklahoma career-tech graduates contribute $3.5 billion annually to the state’s economy, the organization says.