White Collar Reset: Jobs in Oklahoma?

If you need a job, you could do far worse than look in Oklahoma. At a time when the national employment picture remains stubbornly bleak, the state where the wind comes sweepin' down the plains has become a hotbed for wind power, compressed natural gas, health care and all sorts of other growth industries in the sweet spot of the federal stimulus package.

Although the state unemployment rate has doubled in the past year, it still stands at just 6.8 percent, tied for eighth lowest in the nation. The capital, Oklahoma City, a bustling burg of 550,000 with a new NBA franchise and tour boats circling downtown on the new "canal" (actually, it's more of a moat), was recently ranked by the Brookings Institute as the second-most recession-proof city in America, after San Antonio.

Last week, the state's Secretary for Commerce and Tourism, Natalie Shirley, was in New York meeting with major media outlets to share the secrets behind "the Oklahoma Miracle" and discuss the aggressive pro-employment polices her administration is enacting. But I had a much more pressing issue to take up with secretary: I wanted to know if she had any jobs for me.

I met her in the lobby of the New York Marriott Marquis. Clad in a chic, cropped black leather jacket, Secretary Shirley was a charming redhead of about 50, a native Oklahoman who three years ago moved back to the state full-time after two decades of commuting to a job as CEO and legal counsel for ICI Mutual Insurance Group in Washington, D.C. Filling out her entourage in the Big Apple were her marketing director, Beth Schmidt, and her PR rep, Brenda Jones, also born Sooners.

There was no sense beating around the bush. I whipped out my resume and explained that after much careful consideration, I had decided to stop casting my lot with the thousand other over-qualified out-of-work media, advertising and marketing types who seemed to apply for every vacancy I responded to in the New York area and try my luck at some greener pastures. I explained that my wife, a fellow magazine journalist and lifelong East Coaster, who organizes her calendar around SoHo sample sales and the weekly offerings at Dean & Deluca (or used to before our income fell by three-fifths), hadn't exactly signed off on the plan, but I figured that with so many jobs to go around in Oklahoma, maybe we could find her a job, too.

Shirley donned a pair of stylish reading glasses, looked over my resume, and, stifling a laugh, asked not entirely kiddingly, "Have you thought about becoming an engineer? We're just dying for more aerospace engineers."

I explained about the English major (and the History minor), so we moved onto other prospects. Oklahoma has instituted some truly remarkable incentive programs. In one that goes into effect on November 1, designed to stimulate hiring in dozens of knowledge-based careers, every employer who adds a job in any one of the qualifying North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) categories will receive a rebate from the state equal to up to 10 percent of that employee's annual salary for the next 10 years. And that's with no cap. If a person lands a job in Oklahoma paying, say, $150,000, the employer gets a cool 15 grand in cash back in its pocket, no strings attached, every year for as long as the employee remains on the payroll.

This sounded like just what I needed. "So, is there a NAICS code for 'Magazine Editor' or 'Content Developer' or something like that?" I asked.

Shirley explained that the NAICS codes were selected for careers that "we actually need." Oh. "It's nothing personal," she assured me. "It was for industries we could support, what our education facilities were turning out. Aerospace, energy, renewable as well as traditional, health care and specialty hospitals, things like that."

"I've got one," said Schmidt. "You want to be a wind technician?"

Could be promising. I asked for details.

"First off, we can absolutely get you free training," said Schmidt. "You learn how to climb those 250-foot wind towers and learn how to operate the motors."

I figured now was probably the time to inform them I'm not the most mechanically inclined. I decided to gloss over the fact that I once burned out the lawn mower by filling the gas tank with oil. I did, though, cop to my fear of heights.

"Well, don't look down," said Shirley, who, suddenly, was having just a little too much fun with my predicament. "Have you thought about being an engineer?"

"Well, we're going to need solar techs as well," offered Schmidt, still trying to be helpful.

I explained about the skin cancer mole I had removed last year.

"Have you thought about being an engineer?"

"Wait, I've got it," piped up Jones. "What about a respiration therapist? We incentivize those too. In fact, we need all kinds of health care jobs. We're desperate for nurses."

"Yeah, you'd be a great nurse," said Shirley, dropping the Kathy Griffin routine for a second. "You listen. That's what you did for a living."

The other gals noticed my reticence and the strange expression that crossed my face.

"Don't tell me," said Schmidt, "you pass out at the sight of blood?"

We went on with this game of Whac-A-Mole for ten minutes. Eventually, we did come up with two jobs that Oklahoma is in a panic to fill and I should qualify for without too much additional training or a brain transplant. One was "Stimulus Monitor" (working for the state to make sure all the federal stimulus billions it's in line for are spent correctly) and the other was Grant Writer. Neither probably makes more than about $35,000 or $40,000 year. Of course, that's probably like $400,000 in Manhattan money.

If you don't hear from me for a while, you'll know where to find me.

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