EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of four articles examining the aerospace industry in Oklahoma. Saturday, WDN published an overview of SWOSU’s history of involvement with NASA; today’s story looks at SWOSU’s efforts to help produce the workforce for the industry. It will be followed by a story on Weatherford High School’s program.
The connection between aerospace and Southwestern Oklahoma State University goes back to the very early days of NASA’s space flight and moon missions. However, SWOSU’s story does not end there.
Those times of NASA and space exploration were the glamour days when the country’s focus was on every mission and astronauts were treated as heroes. Now, it’s a much more commercialized business and the jobs are much more plentiful. So much so that aeronautics-related companies are struggling to find qualified employees to fill positions.
That’s where SWOSU comes back into the picture. While the school doesn’t turn out as many high-profile alumni as the primetime of space exploration, it continues to produce graduates in an attempt to satisfy the industry’s ever-increasing demand.
“The market is huge because it’s true that the aerospace industry is the second biggest industry in Oklahoma, and it’s growing, and so they are desperate to find qualified workers,” Dr. Joel Kendall, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, said.
“We have developed partnerships with people in those industries to let them know we are turning out qualified graduates who can help them. The job prospects for students who are majoring in those programs are very good.”
So good, in fact, the State of Oklahoma is pushing its universities to produce more graduates to feed an industry some observers think could overtake oil and gas as the state’s No. 1.
Philip Busey Jr., a 2004 SWOSU graduate, is president of Delaware Resource Group, a global aerospace defense contractor based in Oklahoma City, and has been heavily involved in pushing workforce development for the industry, but especially at his alma mater.
“The aerospace industry in Oklahoma,” Busey said, “the only limit it has today is the workforce — the actual people to be employed to go into the industry. It’s an interesting and a great situation for Oklahoma.”
With roots in developing personnel for the aerospace industry going back to the time of J.R. Pratt and Benny Hill during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, SWOSU continues to expand its legacy.
“We like to say aerospace is in our DNA,” Kendall said.
“We’ve always had that connection. Our close relationship with Gen.
Tom Stafford solidifies that. Even though he’s not a graduate of ours, he has always been involved in supporting our efforts in aerospace defense.
So, our biggest effort right now in recruiting students is letting them know we have these programs of high quality and we have high-quality faculty that are going to prepare them for that industry.”
Kendall detailed three SWOSU programs related to the aerospace industry — engineering technology, engineering physics and computer science — with a goal of keeping pace with industry needs.
He noted two years ago the university received some funding from the state with the directive to use it for STEM-related efforts. The Engineering Technology Department used the money to build an additive manufacturing lab, which can take a piece of broken equipment that is no longer manufactured and build it from scratch, such as through 3-D printing.
It also is produced at a fraction of the cost.
Rather than develop new programs, SWOSU wants to focus on those it has already has, Kendall said, which includes engineering technology, engineering physics and computer science.
“Engineering physics is more of a conceptual, math-intensive program,” he explained. “It’s taught by physicists. They are ones that created the Rocket Dawg that won the national championship of rocketry. Engineering technology is more the hands-on manufacturing type of engineering.
“Then there’s computer science,” Kendall added.
“Computer science is one of the biggest-growing areas in aerospace industry, especially because of cyber security.
We have some cyber security experts on our faculty. They’re really taking off with that to make sure we’re meeting the demand for it.”
For a smaller, regional school such as SWOSU, it takes more effort to stay on the radar of aerospace companies. Busey has been instrumental in getting the university’s message out.
Friday, he brought to Weatherford a group of students who are working on their MBAs at the University of Oklahoma but already are employed in the industry at places such as Boeing and Raytheon.
“They’re already at a management level where they are being paid to take the OU MBA program,” Busey explained. “They will become leaders or they already are leaders and are moving up the ranks. These people are or one day will be hiring or making hiring decisions.
By having them here (Friday), my hope is that someday down the line they will have seen the university, they will have seen the community and they will know where to go long-term.”
Kendall recalled a meeting Busey had set up with Kendall and SWOSU President Dr. Diana Lovell.
“We walk into the building, and there are 38 of the highest-level of industry leaders, from Boeing, from the FAA, from Tinker,” Kendall said. “I’m going, ‘Whoa, I’m not ready for this.’
They showed up because they had a need. All the industry needs workers and Southwestern can help them with that.”
Busey added, “Southwestern is poised to be a true leader in the aerospace industry for Oklahoma. What’s significant about that is OU and (Oklahoma State University) have historically been the go-to, and they’ve done it well. They’re big universities with research capabilities. However, the regional universities like Southwestern have this additional market I think can really benefit the state and benefit the industry.”
He mentioned Weatherford also offers a livable environment for employees, including the Clinton-Sherman Industrial Airpark, which has a licensed spaceport near Burns Flats. However, it doesn’t offer potential corporate employees much in accommodations.
“Weatherford is a wonderful community,” Busey said. “This is a vibrant place. It has a higher ed component.”
Community is another point Kendall touched on.
“More than 90 percent of our graduates stay in the state of Oklahoma,” he said. “That’s music to the ears of an industry that’s growing because, if they need workers, they don’t want ones that stay for a short time and move on. We can point to the fact that nearly all of our graduates stay here, even ones from out of state — 67 percent of our students from out of state are still here after five years.”
A final, but essential, component of SWOSU’s success in aerospace is the faculty. While Pratt and Hill were the pioneers in establishing the university as a significant player in aerospace, recent faculty have keep the pace in the industry’s expanding universe of needs.
“I just brag on our faculty,” Kendall said.
“They truly have taken on a lot of extra work in the past couple of years as we have gone through these transition efforts to make sure that they’re talking with industry, that they’re out recruiting for their programs.”