By Jack Rogers
From the May/June 2016 Issue
If the first things that come to mind when you think about Oklahoma are oil rigs, Sooner football and endless revivals of a beloved Broadway musical, it’s time to think again.
Under Gov. Mary Fallin’s leadership, the Sooner State is aggressively moving forward to proactively meet the emerging critical priorities of economic development in the 21st century. Whether it’s the availability of STEM-trained workers for advanced manufacturing, protecting abundant water resources for the next 50 years, expanding alternative energy or upgrading infrastructure and bringing gigabit-speed Internet to all corners of her state, Gov. Fallin has a plan that works, and the results to prove it.
SURGING GROWTH IN KEY SECTORS
During Gov. Fallin’s tenure as the state’s chief executive, Oklahoma has experienced a substantial growth in a diverse mix of sectors, including advanced manufacturing jobs in aerospace, electronics and biomedical engineering; administrative and support sectors also are surging. During the first six months of OK’s current fiscal year, 28 companies announced plans to invest more than $2.3 billion in Oklahoma over the next three years.
Projects like the GE Global Research Center and Boeing’s Global Services and Support facility are creating more demand for STEM-educated workers in Oklahoma. Gov. Fallin launched the Oklahoma Works initiative to meet the needs of businesses across the state by aligning education/workforce needs in nine Key Economic Regions for the industries in those regions. The governor also hosts an annual STEM Summit. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation currently ranks OK 16th among states for STEM job growth; Gov. Fallin is determined to push OK to the top.
“Increasing our number of STEM graduates is critical,” she told BF. “The number of STEM degrees and certificates conferred at state system colleges and universities reach a record high in the last academic year with more than 6,000 students receiving degrees and certificates in STEM disciplines, a 28-percent increase over the last five years.”
Oklahoma offers free summer academies for middle and high school students, exposing them to the latest trends in STEM studies. In 2015, 26 academy programs were held at 17 college and university campuses in OK. More than 17,000 students have attended the summer academies.
[For more information about OK’s tech training programs, see our workforce training cover story.]
Travel and tourism now make ups the third-largest industry in the state, bringing in nearly $9 billion and more than 20 million visitors annually to Oklahoma. They discover that OK is one of only four states to have 10 or more “ecoregions” (areas with distinct terrain), with more per square mile than any other state. Oklahoma has almost 56,000 square miles of shoreline along lakes, rivers and ponds (which hold enough water to fill an area larger than Rhode Island) and 167,000 miles of rivers and streams. Gov. Fallin cited OK’s tourism, sports and service industries as key assets that are attracting business investment to the state, emphasizing that quality of life issues have become paramount when businesses make location choices.
“Quality of life is a key business decision for companies,” Fallin told BF. “When Boeing moved more than 600 jobs from California, only 20 percent of employees were expected to choose to relocate. However, after a series of presentations on what our state has to offer, Boeing experienced an 80-percent acceptance rate or more.”
Fallin cited Oklahoma’s fifth-lowest cost of living among U.S. states as a major factor in convincing companies to relocate to the Sooner State. The governor also told us that OK’s abundance of water resources is making the state increasingly attractive to site selection professionals who are moving availability of water to the top of their priority lists.
A 50-YEAR PLAN FOR FRESH WATER
“Availability of water is very important to manufacturing, the energy sector, the military and the hospitality industry,” Fallin said. “Oklahoma has worked very hard to develop a plan to ensure our state will have sufficient water resources for generations to come.”
In 2012, Fallin signed the Water for 2060 Act, creating a Comprehensive Water Plan establishing a state goal to use no more fresh water in 2060 than it did in 2012, a goal that will be reached through aggressive water conservation, reuse and recycling. Under her leadership, OK also has developed the state’s first groundwater monitoring network to provide real-time data on the state’s aquifers. Three regional action plan teams have been set up to assess current and future water demand, as well as determine future water supplies in the region.
State and local officials also have come up with innovative solutions that permit major industries to expand without tapping into the local supply of fresh water. For Koch Industries’ $1.3-billion expansion of its nitrogen plant in Enid, Garfield County approved the creation of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district to expand water demand for Enid residents and the plant. The TIF funded the creation of a water treatment system that allows the Koch plant to use treated wastewater from the city rather than first consume the city’s drinking water; the system is expected to enable the Koch plant to reduce its purchase of city water by as much as five million gallons per day, replacing it with the treated wastewater.
OK’s major research institutions are working to reduce the needs of the state’s agriculture industry, traditionally a heavy user of water. Scientists at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation are engineering new drought-resistant plant species—plants that need less water to grow. Oklahoma State University’s water resources center also is focused on developing real-world solutions to the water challenge; the center provides training and education programs for water resources professionals.
PLANNING FOR A GREEN ENERGY FUTURE
While Oklahoma has traditionally been among the national leaders in the production of oil and natural gas, the Sooner State proactively is preparing for a green-energy future.
Gov. Fallin told BF her administration is dedicated to fully realizing Oklahoma’s renewable energy resource potential. Oklahoma previously set a Renewable Energy Portfolio standard requiring it to get 15 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2015, but the state hit the target early, in 2013. OK currently gets more than 18 percent of its electricity from renewables, a share Fallin projects will continue to grow at a steady pace.
The governor noted that each of OK’s utilities currently utilizes a sizable portion of generation from wind power, ranging from 12 to 20 percent. Fallin’s Oklahoma First Energy Plan strategy includes a robust transmission grid with new capabilities to support power generated from alternative energy. Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) over the past five years has built two new transmission lines to western OK enabling wind and solar power to be hooked up to the system.
Gov. Fallin’s energy blueprint also puts a strong emphasis on energy management and conservation. OG&E has completed system-wide deployment of smart meters and has initiated a nationally recognized customer-based program for energy management. Another statewide utility, Public Service Co. of Oklahoma (PSO), will complete its system-wide deployment of smart meters by the end of this year.
Fallin’s administration also has been ahead of the national curve in addressing her state’s infrastructure needs. Since Fallin took office at the beginning of 2011, Oklahoma has invested more than $3 billion to upgrade its highways and bridges. In the past decade, OK has reduced the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state from 1,168 to 339. “We are on track to have one percent or fewer of all of our highway bridges rated structurally deficient by the end of this decade,” Fallin told BF.
Fallin believes access to high-speed Internet is critical to successful economic development in today’s market; she’s made it a top priority to bring high-speed Web service to all areas of OK. AT&T recently launched its 1-gigabit-per-second GigaPower network in Oklahoma City and is preparing to launch GigaPower in Tulsa soon. Qualifying low-income households in Oklahoma can receive high-speed Internet for $5 or $10 a month under a program AT&T announced in April 2016. Gov. Fallin signed legislation this month to modernize how schools, hospitals and other institutions can access funding for high-speed Internet services through the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund.
A CENTURY OF SUCCESS IN AEROSPACE
We asked Gov. Fallin if Oklahoma can maintain its position as a leader in aerospace manufacturing. Her answer was concise and confident: “Absolutely.”
Oklahoma has been a key player in aerospace for more than 100 years, and there is no sign of aerospace activity slowing down in the Sooner State. Since 2010, Boeing has moved more than 1,200 jobs to Oklahoma; and since 2011 more than 1,400 new aerospace jobs have been added in the state. OK is home to the largest U.S. military air depot and the largest commercial center in the world for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul.
More than 120,000 Oklahomans are employed by companies in the aerospace and defense industry, generating more than $27 billion in revenue; Oklahoma’s CareerTech system has extensive aerospace training programs. The unmanned aerial systems (UAS, also known as drones) industry continues to grow in Oklahoma: Oklahoma State University offered the nation’s first UAS-focused graduate degree and Ph.D. programs. More than 40 UAS companies are now based in Oklahoma.