The OKC Innovation District in Focus: Planning the Course to New Heights

How the Innovation District Can Help Propel Oklahoma’s Aerospace & Defense Industry
– A Conversation with Phil G. Busey Sr. & Delaware Resource Group

Oklahoma’s aerospace industry has grown a lot since the days of its pioneers Will Rogers and Wiley Post. Today aerospace and defense is the state’s second-largest industry, generating $44 billion in economic activity and 120,000 jobs. Even though the industry is growing by leaps and bounds, much work still remains in order to harness our true potential and become recognized as the national center for aerospace excellence. To reach that goal, it’s going to take a collaborative effort from the industry, community, tribal nations, Tinker Air Force Base and educational institutions.

The Oklahoma City Innovation District plays a critical role to bring together higher education, businesses and research across industries. Projecting a commitment to innovation is key to building a positive image of Oklahoma for business support and developing economic solutions. The district creates a synergy where companies can invest more resources in Oklahoma. While embracing our rich oil and gas history, we must recognize change is upon us and showcase the diversity of our industries – from aerospace and defense to biotech and its groundbreaking research discoveries. We also need to share our stories about pioneer spirit and blended cultures that make the state unique.

With a population of nearly 4 million, Oklahoma is a small state. We compete against states like Texas, which has more than 7 million people in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex alone. To successfully grow our economy, we need to use all of our resources, like Tribal partnerships. These partnerships, which contribute over $14 billion to the state, are critical to building economic bridges in rural Oklahoma for talent and economic sustainment. As another resource, the Innovation District can serve as a catalyst for future development and a hub for workforce initiatives. Workforce development in Oklahoma is critical to build a talent pipeline of individuals equipped with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills, and with 1,500-2,000 aerospace job openings industrywide, the state is struggling to meet the demand. This deficit and the job creation on the horizon make it critical for Oklahoma to step up to the plate. In order to reach true potential and meet industry needs, we must work together to create STEM networks, virtual training centers, as well as scholarship and internship opportunities. We must work together to spark interest in youngsters across the state – from rural and metro areas – to fill the skills gaps and build and retain a deeper pool of talent.

As part of that effort, Native-American-owned Delaware Resource Group (DRG) is teaming up with the Cherokee Nation to implement an aerospace and defense program at Sequoyah High School near Tahlequah, OK. The program, which will include a simulator, is being launched in efforts to get more students interested in a career in aerospace software engineering.

The Cherokee Nation is also working with higher education. These efforts include programs for students in data science and engineering provided by the University of Oklahoma at no cost and an in-state program at Oklahoma State University that would allow tribal members to receive tuition assistance to attend engineering school. These students are eligible for tribal scholarships and can then move into internships across our industry. This is a basis of a talent pipeline.

In addition to producing homegrown talent, we need to improve our ability to recruit well-qualified candidates to our state. Part of the strategy in making Oklahoma a more attractive place to work is improving the state’s public education system. Oklahoma’s low national ranking of our public education system is a deterrent for potential workers to come to the state. According to a report issued by U.S. News & World Report, Oklahoma ranks 39th in the nation in public education. We must change the perception of Oklahoma and invest in these collaborative business opportunities and education as well as the arts and cultural sector.

Oklahoma can compete. The choice is ours. The focus must be collective and on our economic and cultural strengths. This includes bringing the arts, music, education, industries and research together to develop talent and opportunity for large and small businesses. It’s about what we do today to build bridges for the next generation. A focus on innovation matters. Peter Drucker once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

This article was contributed by Phil G. Busey Sr., founder and CEO of DRG and The Busey Group of Companies.

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