The bad news: More than 10 million U.S. residents are jobless, putting the unemployment rate at its highest level since March 1994, and economists say it's going to get worse.
The good news: You live in Tulsa.
"The U.S. economy is getting much weaker, and Oklahoma's is getting much weaker, but at not as fast a pace as the nation," said Ernie Goss, chair of regional economics at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. "I think [unemployment's] going to move above 4 percent [in Oklahoma], but that's still not that bad compared to the U.S., which is already up to 6.5 percent and likely to go above 7 percent in the months ahead."
Oklahoma's unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, and Tulsa's is 3.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mark Snead, director of the Center for Applied Economic Research at Oklahoma State University, said he expects unemployment to reach 4.9 percent in Oklahoma next year and 5.2 percent in 2010. Job growth will decline 0.1 percent in the state next year, he predicted, while Tulsa's job growth will decline 0.2 percent.
Snead said Oklahoma remains somewhat insulated from a recession, however because of its strong energy-related industries and because oil prices are expected to remain higher than $45 a barrel.
"Oklahoma is one of seven or eight states with a chance to get through this unscathed," Snead said in a press release Nov. 18. "We will have job losses that will be visible at times, but it won't be a crisis like we've seen on a national level."
Goss agreed the energy sector has been a source of strength for Oklahoma, but he said declining energy prices -- oil dipped below $55 a barrel Nov. 17, down from $147 a barrel in July -- contributed to his prediction that Oklahoma unemployment would break the 4.0 barrier by the end of the year.
"Since the end of the 2001 recession, Oklahoma's employment in mining and natural resources and support industries has expanded by over 80 percent," Goss said in a Nov. 3 statement accompanying the release of Oklahoma Business Conditions Index data for October. "For the first time since the last recession we are seeing weakness in this sector and related firms."
Goss publishes the Business Conditions Index monthly for the nine-state Mid-American region. A score of 50 on the index indicates a neutral-growth economy. Oklahoma's index had been higher than 50 -- projecting an expansionary economy -- every month since November of last year. Last month, however, Oklahoma's index dropped from 57.1 to 25.6.
Plunging oil prices may translate to lost jobs for Oklahomans, but the energy sector is not the only thing keeping Oklahoma's economy ahead of the rest of the country.
"Even though [the state economy] is down, Oklahoma didn't have the run-up in housing prices that some of the nation had, and the banks in Oklahoma are holding up better than the [national] financial sector," Goss said.
I'm Sorry, You're Hired
Suzann Stewart, executive director and senior vice president of the Tulsa Convention Visitors Bureau and Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, also said Tulsa's economy is holding up well because it has avoided huge bubbles in real estate and banking.
"We don't have real estate that is overly valued," she said. "We have had some foreclosures, but not the percentage or number that other communities have experienced, because the values have been realistic."
In October, there was one foreclosure for every 452 households nationwide, according to real estate data service RealtyTrac. In Oklahoma, the rate was one for every 1,967 households, the 16th best in the nation.
Stewart added that while some of the country's largest banking firms have suffered greatly during the past year, Tulsa's independent, privately held banks are doing relatively well.
Tulsa Economic Development Corporation executive director Rose Washington said it is becoming increasingly difficult for small businesses to borrow money to grow their companies, but some smaller banks are still receptive.
"We talk to some banks, and they say 'We're doing business as usual.' Others are really tight," she said. "The bigger the bank, the tighter the market."
Tulsa has already seen some job cuts. Oral Roberts University announced 100 layoffs Nov. 17, Dollar Thrifty announced 107 Tulsa layoffs Oct. 30 and SemGroup announced 110 Tulsa layoffs Aug. 11, just to name a few. Those workers may not be able to find jobs to match their previous employment, but that doesn't mean they have to be out of work.
"When you look at the construction and trade industries, there is certainly a need for workers," Greenwood Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Reuben Gant said. "We've been crying for a number of years about the need for skilled labor in the areas of technicians and engineers."
Jobs are also available in health care and sales, said Kristine Sexter, founder of employee recruitment and development firm WorkWise Productions, but she too focused on the need for skilled labor. Sexter said a misperception among Generation Y-ers prevents many workers from entering potentially lucrative, fulfilling careers.
"We teach children to be doctors or dentists or lawyers ... [but] welding and machining is very well-paying and sexy, cool work," she said, adding that skilled machinists can earn $50,000 to $75,000 a year. "Tulsa technical schools are finding they can't get people to enroll ... when demand [for workers] is at its highest."
Shelly Holly, director of career services for the University of Tulsa, said this year's graduates have equaled past successes in securing jobs, with many alumni finding positions as engineers, accountants and government employees. Many firms that hired recent graduates told Holly they were filling gaps that will eventually be left by retiring baby boomers.
Rob Zumwalt, founding partner of career services firm The Addison Group, said some companies have projects lined up to fill as much as three years worth of work, and they need workers to complete those projects. But he predicts firms may hedge their bets on what will happen once those projects are completed.
"Companies may [start] hiring fewer people full-time to their payroll and using those same types of people on a contract or temporary basis ... then see what's going to unfold with the economy," he said.
Temporary or contract workers would be paid the same wages as full-time employees, Zumwalt said, but they may not receive benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans.
To ensure long-term employment, Sexter said, employees should continually work to update their skills and show their measurable value to employers. She added that the three basics of work ethic -- perfect attendance, good communication and a positive attitude -- are always in high demand.
"In Oklahoma, I'm still saying that we still are going to enjoy a certain level of insulation from the East Coast and West Coast [economic downturn] due to the fact that this part of country is built on really solid work ethics," Sexter said. "We still teach our children about the value of a hard day's dollar earned ... and we're more successful because customers and clients know they can rely on us to deliver what we say we will deliver."
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