Mapping a path toward recovery

In the fall of 2020, the Tulsa Regional Chamber partnered with Emsi and CAEL to complete a study of the workforce dislocation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The comprehensive study and roadmap for recovery will help business and civic leaders better understand the outlook for dislocated workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which skill sets are available in the regional talent pipeline, what is needed to retrain and rehire these dislocated workers, and how to best position northeast Oklahoma’s workforce to compete in the future job market.




Project Overview

This analysis utilized both quantitative research and stakeholder engagement with businesses, educators, and public leadership across the Tulsa metro. The analysis focuses on dislocated workers rather than the more familiar category of unemployment. The distinction emphasizes the barriers that prevent people from smoothly reentering the workforce. Dramatic industry upheaval, the changing nature of work, critical health risks and skill misalignment are all pressures capable of turning the unemployed into the dislocated.

Key Findings


  • Tulsa entered the pandemic on a strong economic footing. Between 2015 and 2020, regional population growth outpaced the state. The Tulsa metro added 14,000 jobs over the past five years, and the aerospace industry added over 5,000 regional jobs in the same period.
  • Tulsa’s Labor Force Participation rate remained steady over the course of the pandemic, surpassing state and national levels and returning to 2019 levels by September of 2020.
  • Educational attainment offered insulation to a portion of Tulsa’s skilled workforce during the pandemic, those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher had the greatest employment retention.
  • Hiring demand showed signs of recovery in late 2020, led by retail trade which surpassed pre-COVID-19 levels by August of 2020. The competitive cost of living —9% below the U.S. average— makes Tulsa an attractive market for workers relocating from gateway cities during the pandemic.


  • Even amidst high unemployment volumes, some employers are finding it difficult to attract talent to open positions. All industries report that “higher-skilled” positions are the hardest to fill. Employers attributed this hiring friction to fatigue at “intensive working conditions” dealing with COVID-19 safety protocols, expanded unemployment benefits making work less attractive to lower-wage employees, childcare and family demands created by the pandemic.  The workforce system and higher education must improve alignment with regional employer’s priority needs. Employers voiced frustration at timely responses to workforce needs and are considering the development of their own internal, industry-specific training programs as an alternative.  Low education, low-skill workers are at the greatest risk of being left behind in recovery. One in five workers with only a high school diploma were unemployed during the Spring of 2020.  Tulsa’s economy is highly concentrated in manufacturing at nearly twice the national concentration level. The sector produced the highest number of unemployed workers during the COVID-19 pandemic with 11,390 dislocated workers dislocated from the sector in April of 2020. Over 4,000 workers remaining dislocated in the fall of 2020. 

Industry Clusters

The industry clusters most affected by the pandemic were advanced manufacturing, accommodation and food services, retail and energy. 


The manufacturing industry was the hardest hit, with more than 11,000 dislocated workers. Employers reported larger-scale early retirements and layoffs due to the pandemic, and a lot do not plan on significant hiring in 2021. 


This was the second-most impacted industry, with more than 10,000 dislocated workers. Many young workers were pushed out of the industry and are now looking for new inroads to employment. The hiring demand has remained significantly below 2019 levels.


The retail industry saw nearly 8,000 dislocated workers in the spring of 2020, but hiring surpassed 2019 levels as early as August of 2020. Management and supervisory skills are in high demand. 



Pandemic dislocation hit the industry in the midst of contraction. The energy sector shed 10% of its jobs since 2014. Major employers shared that the industry continues to adapt during the sector's transition, demanding new skills to support innovation and green energy initiatives.

Action Items to Support Recovery

The Chamber will focus its efforts on several recommendations from the analysis to best position northeast Oklahoma for post-pandemic recovery. This effort closely aligns with the Chamber’s recent designation as a Manufacturing Center for Workforce Excellence by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and will involve businesses, training partners and educational institutions.

Immediate focus areas

  • Civic leaders and stakeholders must refresh efforts to retain talent, upskill the regional workforce, and make the case to firms to hire locally.

  • Training institutions and industry must train and prepare for the jobs of the future and diligently shift from programs that are out of step with progress.

  • Industry and education representatives must innovate and collaborate on educational curriculum.

Those three recommendations are the immediate focus of the Chamber. The analysis includes additional recommendations that the Chamber's economic development efforts will prioritize in the next five-year phase of Tulsa's Future. 

Long-term recommendations

  • Economic development plans must prepare for new realities and ripple effects as downtown and other business hubs may not return to full capacity.
  • Workforce development entities must consider new methods of reaching and engaging employers around hiring and supporting the workers they serve.
  • Tulsa must capitalize on training and worker preparation in industries that are growing, occupations that are “downturn-proof” and skills that are most in need.
  • Advance, expand and improve online and virtual training for “Industry 4.0” jobs.
  • Collaborate on skills-based hiring
  • Collaborate on funding of training
  • Develop and support a multi-skilled workforce
  • Support creative, flexible, multi-firm partnerships


Click here to view the full Dislocated Workforce Analysis.

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