Shot in the arm: Tech jobs hold much of the post-pandemic future in Oklahoma City, Tulsa
Technological innovation alone can't save Oklahoma City from the economic ravages of the coronavirus, but the growing importance of tech jobs in the workforce is a kind of inoculation against some of its effects.
The reslient tech sector is likely even stronger in the otherwise coronavirus-slammed economy — thanks to digital advances related to remote working and booming e-commerce — and tech could help lead some cities out of recession before others, including this one.
That's according to Los Angeles-based CBRE Group's annual Scoring Tech Talent Report, which placed Oklahoma City and Tulsa both on a list of up-and-coming U.S. and Canadian tech-talent markets. The report was based on statistics from 2019, before the coronavirus, but it looks ahead to life and the economy after the pandemic.
The report ranked the top 50 markets based on ability to attract and increase jobs in 20 technology occupations from software developers to systems and data managers. Oklahoma City and Tulsa made the "Next 25," which were graded on fewer criteria, including talent supply and concentration, wages, recent growth rates and outlook.
Los Angeles-based CBRE, a global commercial real estate firm with brokers in Oklahoma City, researches tech talent because of its effect on office space and use. With the energy sector in contraction even before the coronavirus made it worse — with oil and gas companies already shedding jobs, or failing, and relinquishing office space — this year's Scoring Tech Talent Report coiuld get more than the usual attention.
"Markets with high concentrations or clusters of growing tech-talent employers have created economic growth and changed office market dynamics," according to the report by Colin Yasukochi and Lexi Russell.
Tech talent stats
Tulsa ranked 15th overall on the secondary list. CBRE said the Tulsa tech labor force grew 34% the past five years to some 13,040 employees. Tech salaries increased 12%, to an annual average salary of 77,701.
Oklahoma City ranked 17th on the up-and-coming list. CBRE said the city's tech labor force grew 7% the past five years to a total employment of 19,540. Tech wages grew 13%, to an average annual salary of $80,863.
More will jobs will come on demand for new tech products and services that quickly came to the fore after the COVID-19 outbreak, such as remote streaming communications and broadened use of social media, said Yasukochi, executive director of CBRE’s Tech Insights Center.
“We expect that most tech-talent markets and professions will thrive after the pandemic subsides, and many that facilitate remote work, e-commerce, social media and streaming services may have even greater growth opportunities accelerated by the COVID-19 disruption,” Yasukochi said. “Markets that have strong innovation infrastructure — leading universities and high concentrations of tech jobs — will lead the next growth cycle.”
Tech occupations considered for the report included computer and information systems managers, researchers and analysts; software developers and programmers; web developers; database and network administrators and architects; computer user and network support specialists; hardware engineers; electrical engineers; and electrical and electronics engineeeing technicians.
Tech jobs fall across all industries, of course, but recent expansions and growth in specialty tech firms show the impact on commercial property, especially office buildings, and helps position Oklahoma City for recovery.
Paycom Software, Heartland Payment Systems, and Rural Sourcing are "perfect examples," said Tom Lange, vice president at CBRE's Oklahoma City office. Each came here, or has grown here, with state and local incentives.
Paycom, which started here in 1998, had 3,765 employees at the end of 2019 and continues to grow, although the company wouldn't say how much of its workforce is in Oklahoma City. Paycom left 40,000 square feet of leased space in Lakepoint Towers, 4013 Northwest Expressway, in 2011 for its own campus at 7501 W Memorial Road, which after recent expansion comprises three buildings totaling about 500,000 square feet.
Downtown, Heartland Payment Systems, with 550 employees, outgrew its new 100,000-square-foot headquarters at 606 N Broadway Ave. before even taking occupancy, and leased another 40,000 square feet of space in the Mideke Building at 100 E Main St. to add another 400 to its workforce
In Bricktown, Rural Sourcing Inc., based in Atlanta, leased 20,000 square feet of space for a software development and support center two years ago in the Rock Island Plow Building at 29 E Reno Ave. The company moved in with 60 employees and a three-year goal of 150.
"Oklahoma City is becoming more of a draw for (tech) firms for a variety of reasons," Lange said. "We have an available workforce with less competition for tech talent than some other larger markets. In addition, we are close to some great universities, which continue to produce new tech graduates that can serve the local industry. Lastly, Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma overall, have the benefit of a lower overall cost of doing business than the much larger markets."
The growth of tech jobs in general business is also part of CBRE's post-pandemic outlook. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber has long been on it.
"The Chamber has a long-term focus on the need for properly skilled talent to be available in Oklahoma City," said Jeff Seymour, the chamber's executive vice president of economic development. "This requires a lot of collaboration, not only with our existing industry partners but with our education partners as well."
Seymour said the chamber's focus now is working with employers on developing "talent pipelines" for digital skills, automation and aerospace industries.
"But when we develop that talent, we want to make sure it stays here," Seymour said, "so we spend a lot of time on selling Oklahoma City to the younger generation of future employees at job fairs and through our program InternOKC. We created InternOKC in 2006 ... as a way to keep the talent here in our workforce, especially as the students were involved in the educational opportunities available in the metro."
InternOKC was canceled this year because of the coronavirus, but Seymour said last year 347 people from 73 employers participated in three educational sessions that included professional development tips, information on regional culture, and business environment and networking opportunities.
'A Better Life'
Keeping homegrown tech talent and atttracting it are both important, Seymour said.
"We’ve learned through our time working with Boeing that employees are more excited to come to Oklahoma City when their families feel comfortable here as well. That’s why we created our A Better Life website, where future and new residents can learn what Oklahoma City has to offer, from schools to things to do, and everything in between," Seymour said. "We even have employees from key companies talking about what it’s like to live in Oklahoma City."
The chamber upgraded the site, www.abetterlifeokc.com/, and related general recruiting effort recently to make it "more appealing to the 21st century employee," he said.
"We also work with employers and their new employees to stay engaged in the city through our Find Your OKC program, which was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic," Seymour said. "At the happy hour receptions, new residents meet with OKC champions to learn the best places to eat, how to get involved with sports leagues, and other points of interest. This type of programming helps our talent find their people so they can build a life here."
The coronavirus and related job losses have the chamber and others, such as the state CareerTech system, working on retraining people for jobs in the uncharted territory of a pandemic, and eventual, post-pandemic economy. Educational opportunities are also expanding for industries that are growing despite business closures and a general economy still hammered by the coronavirus and its social effects.
In April, the University of Oklahoma launched new graduate programs in aerospace and defense to start this fall semester. Also this fall, the University of Central Oklahoma will go online with its Workforce Advantage professional certificate for businesses to teach and enhance essential skills their employees.
As daunting as economic recovery will be, Oklahoma City is better poised to eventually get over the coronavirus than most, CBRE said, because of its growing reputation for being a tech-talent hub. That's why it's on the up-and-coming "Next 25" list of tech-talent markets.
"Oklahoma City has a lot of factors working in its favor when it comes to drawing tech users (companies) to the market," Lange said. "Not only do companies have the benefit of a lower overall cost of doing business, but employees can enjoy a lower cost of living when compared to relatively close tech markets like Dallas or Austin.
"Sometimes overlooked in comparisons between Oklahoma City and larger markets are the tangible quality of life benefits we have which, along with more affordable housing, include less traffic and in general an ease of life that contributes to health and happiness."