Express Employment CEO, Bob Funk, Sr., cautions “College is not for everyone”

OKLAHOMA CITY – Bob Funk, Sr., chief executive officer of Express Employment Professionals, has a message for U.S. and Oklahoma policymakers: “College May Not be for Everyone.”

In a wide-ranging interview with CapitolBeatOK, the entrepreneur who founded what is now the nation’s largest privately-held staffing firm detailed the role of Career Technical Education (CTE) in the present and future economy.

“Our basic premise is that the best social program for our state and nation is the creation of good jobs. It gives people purpose, drive and upward mobility to have a rewarding job that they are prepared for in terms of skills. I have long believed there is a skills gap; it is harder and harder to find people who have the technical skills needed in our various industries,” Funk said.

“There is a shortage of skilled labor technical jobs, and many young people who could fill those jobs are getting college degrees in areas where there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate.

Right now, there are 5,000-7,000 jobs waiting for welders around the nation. Locally, in Oklahoma, the need is at least several hundred.”

These jobs are not traditional “blue collar” jobs: “All the computerized jobs that are vacant, there’s not enough training to get people ready for those jobs. The IT shortage is huge. 

There are 110,000 openings nationwide, but there are only 40,000 graduates. Another area: a shortage of technical people needed to support accounting operations.”

In the April “white paper” for Express, the top 10 hardest jobs to fill due to a lack of qualified workers were: CNC programmers (manufacturing engineer), welders, machinists, accountants, sales, commercial licensed drivers, IT technicians (web designers and programmers), engineers, medical professionals and administrative (managers, assistants, bookkeepers, payroll specialists, data entry and customer service reps). 

Funk’s life work has centered on small business: “Recent U.S. Census Bureau data impressed this on me – the vast majority of companies have fewer than 100 employees. I believe there are fewer than 1,000 companies in total who employ more than 10,000 people. … The need is in small business, and in the technical areas.”

Bolstering Funk’s point was a recent analysis focused on fraud and abuse problems in Small Business Administration (SBA) procurements. 

The review from the American Small Business League estimated that 98 percent of all firms have fewer than 100 employees. Funk’s bottom line, often repeated: “America is a small company/entrepreneurial country.”

Express Employment’s white paper specified a variety of “CTE-related” industries where the skills gap needs to be filled, including agriculture, food and natural resources; architecture and construction; Arts, A/V tech and communications; business management and administration; education and training; finance;  government and public administration; and health sciences.

Additionally, hospitality/tourism; human services; information technology; law, public safety, corrections and security; manufacturing; marketing, sales and service; and science, technology, engineering and math; as well as transportation, distribution and logistics.

Funk contends “Secondary education is putting emphasis on sending kids to college. I’m all for every person seeking to achieve their dreams. The challenge is we are turning people out who are aimed at college, when the market is telling us we need more of them aiming for high-paying technical work.”

He encourages “further education after high school, regardless of what you aim to do in life. But we’re in a situation where we’re producing graduates with skills less than desired for the available jobs.”

As for policy changes to improve awareness of opportunities, Funk reflected, “First and foremost, we need our young people to know about the opportunities. Education needs to have a focus on that ‘skills gap,’ as it is called.

“Part of this, … is simply for more high school counselors to point out this option. We are educating young people with a liberal arts or general arts orientation in a high proportion; those degrees are fine for many, but they do not offer many opportunities in the areas our businesses are focused upon.”

Funk frets over “the antagonism I’ve seen to incentive pay for teachers who perform well, and the relative easy of gaining tenure for too many teachers. I am passionate to see our education system deliver the training and inclination needed for anybody who is able and willing to work in these areas where there are jobs.”

Second, Funk disagreed with a federal minimum wage hike: “I’ve seen six or seven federal minimum age increases in my lifetime. The minimum wage hikes always hurt the lowest skilled workers.”

In March, Express found in a survey of employers that 38 percent planned to reduce hiring if the minimum wage is increased

The results came from the firm’s survey of 1,213 business owners and human resources professionals nationwide; of that number 230 were paying some employees the current federal minimum.)

On the mandated wage hike, he reflected, “For small businesses, 40 percent or more of the cost is for payroll; a jump in the minimum wage threatens to raise that percentage to 50 percent.”

Third, he hopes K-12 educators will “teach ‘soft skills’ better. Showing up on time, getting along with your co-workers and your boss. A ‘get-‘er-done’ attitude to finish a job and work longer than eight hours if necessary.”

He adds, “One of Oklahoma’s greatest strength is the work ethic of the people. It is remarkable. That’s why people who come here, workers and owners of businesses, tend to stay here.”

Fourth, Funk stressed, “I am a small government guy. Less government encourages more entrepreneurship. Policies should not thwart the interest of a woman or man interested in the development of a profitable company.”

Harold L. Sirkin, writing at The Management Blog for Bloomberg Businessweek was among the writers who gave the report a strong endorsement when it first appeared.

Sirkin wrote the white paper made “a strong case … for devoting more resources to and placing greater emphasis on vocational education, what [Express Personnel] refers to as career technical education. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters is that we do it.”

Funk is an evangelist for a new focus, and the message he is pressing has an apparently expanding market.

The review of CTE availability in the white paper found that 14 million Americans are already accessing programming at 1,300 public high schools and 1,700 two-year colleges.

Note: Part one in a series. You may contact Pat at