Tulsa experiences shortage of telecom job candidates as economy expands

Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ On the first floor of Tulsa's tallest building, technical traffic cops are keeping things moving on one of the nation's busiest hi-tech highways.

Workers perched along rows of computers and wall screens monitor Williams Communications' 26,000-mile fiber-optic network, which pipes volumes of video, voice and data in slices of a second.

The control center and Tulsa's 54,000 hi-tech workers illustrate the city's transformation from ``Oil Capital of the World'' into an emerging hi-tech hub in 15 years.

But the city at the crossroads of a national fiber-optic labyrinth has hit a wall: The pool of qualified technology workers is running dry.

Tulsa-based Williams Communications employs 3,000 locally but has 435 openings for employees who watch over a system that pumps signals at light speed for long-distance companies, local carriers, Internet providers and television networks.

Starting pay for some college graduates is $50,000 to $60,000 a year, but it can take months to find qualified job candidates.

Williams has added 1,200 jobs at facilities in Houston, Denver and St. Louis instead.

``There is no way we could recruit enough people in Tulsa right now,'' said Delwin Bothof, president of domestic strategic investments for Williams.

Clinton, Miss.-based WorldCom employs 4,700 in Tulsa but needs engineers, technicians, programmers, computer systems workers and other information technology employees.

``If the right people walked in the door tomorrow, we could probably hire another 600 people,'' said Tom Pipal, who heads U.S. corporate training and development for WorldCom from his Tulsa office.

A WorldCom site in suburban Chicago has ballooned from 200 workers to about 1,000 in 18 months.

An estimated 1.6 million new information technology jobs are expected to open this year nationwide, but half will go unfilled. Tulsa is expected to need 6,300 new hi-tech workers over the next five years.

Oklahoma can't afford to lose the jobs: Personal incomes trail the national average in a state dogged by a rural, underachieving image that telecom in particular could help supplant.

Officials are working on higher education improvements to meet the need but face formidable competition from other states scrambling to cash in on the hi-tech job bonanza.

Colorado has raised $41 million privately and hopes for $250 million as part of Gov. Bill Owens' initiative to double the number of hi-tech workers, said Marc Holtzman, the state's secretary of technology.

``The governor recognized that the only challenge to Colorado becoming a hi-tech center is a lack of skilled workers to fill thousands of skilled jobs,'' he said.

The newly formed Colorado Institute of Technology is offering incentives to universities, community colleges and technical schools to coordinate offerings and crank out trained graduates.

Telecommuncations companies are eagerly waiting. Level 3 Communications, one of Colorado's contributors, has 500 openings and expects to double employment in two years, spokesman Paul Lonnegren said.

In Tulsa, public and private universities, the community college and technical school have formed the Center of Excellence in Information Technology & Telecommunications.

The center is modeled on North Carolina's Research Triangle and aims to coordinate offerings among schools and help companies shape curriculum. It also wants to attract more venture capital, outside industry and talent and boost the number of information technology graduates.

Only 6 percent of the state's more than 14,000 college graduates last year majored in information technologies, said Ron Cooper, the center's executive director who worked with North Carolina's effort.

Williams just provided $1 million that the state is matching. Oklahoma State University's Tulsa campus got an additional $1 million from higher education regents to help hire more technology faculty and enhance its hi-tech degree programs. Broken Arrow-based Xeta Technologies contributed $500,000 for an endowed chair in network communications at Oklahoma State-Tulsa.

Local boosters envision Tulsa being synonymous with network communications in the mold of hi-tech centers such as Austin, Texas; Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, Route 128 in Boston and the emerging Front Range of Colorado.

Tulsa's transformation took root in the oil bust of the early 1980s. Williams parent company, an energy firm, began laying fiber optic cable in its idle petroleum lines in 1985 and sold its first network to LDDS Communications in 1995 before starting a new one two years ago. LDDS later became WorldCom.

By year's end, Williams expects to complete a 33,000-mile long network connecting 125 cities.

``Tulsa and network communications are going to become synonymous,'' said Keith Bailey, chairman and chief executive of Williams Communications' parent company.

Officials said the city's emergence has made it easier to attract outside college graduates, who are pleasantly surprised by its arts and attractive setting among the rolling oak-laden hills along the Arkansas River.

America's Fiber Network, McLeod USA of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Boulder, Colo.-based Carrier Access are among telecom companies that have announced openings or expansions in Tulsa. Tulsa is already an aerospace employer with an American Airlines maintenance center.

Hi-tech spinoffs could supply Oklahoma with new industries and better jobs but, for now, companies are searching for employees.

``The jobs will ultimately end up in the locations where we're able to attract the talent,'' Bailey said.