Rhode Island’s economic recovery fueled by workforce training

Governor Raimondo says it’s up to the state to make sure everyone is trained for a good job.

At just 1,045 square miles, Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country. Four years ago, it had the worst jobless rate in the U.S. at more than 9 percent. The rate is now at 4.3 percent — 27th in the country — and Governor Gina Raimondo is on the record crediting the state’s “commitment to job training” as one of the main the reasons for the turnaround. The jobs situation is measurably better, but there’s still room for improvement, especially as new businesses flock to the state.

Rhode Island, like most states, is struggling with a shortage of skilled workers. “It’s a real challenge. It’s a huge issue,” Gov. Raimondo says in an interview this month with WorkingNation. “I talk to employers almost daily. They say, ‘We have jobs open right now. We can’t find people who have the skills we need to hire them.’ It’s on us to figure out how to make sure everybody gets the skills they need to get a good job.”

The state has been taking that workforce challenge very seriously, creating a number of jobs-based training programs and education initiatives to address the needs of businesses and job seekers over the past four years. “In order to have effective job training, it has to be demand-driven,” says the Harvard- and Yale-educated governor who took office in 2015.

Rhode Island's public-private
Gov. Raimondo speaks at an Oct. 2017 event celebrating the more than 1,000 job seekers who found work during Raimondo’s first 1,000 days in office. Photo – Real Jobs Rhode Island via Twitter

“There is no point to training people for jobs that don’t exist or that are low-paying. In an ideal world, they walk out of your training center and they get a good job, a decent job. They can take care of their family, pay the bills, and get benefits,’ says Gov. Raimondo.

Real Jobs Rhode Island is one of those demand-driven training programs. Launched in 2015, Real Jobs RI works directly with more than 30 partner employers to tailor training for specific openings in a dozen industries. So far, more than 3,000 people have completed the program with in-demand skills and are getting good jobs. One example of how that program works is in Westerly, where the state created a job training center and partnered with General Dynamics Electric Boats, which has been building submarines for the U.S. Navy since 1900.

Rhode Island workforce initiatives are working to create more apprentices for local employers.
Gov. Raimondo meets with a toolmaker apprentice with Rhode Island-based Antaya Technologies. Photo – Real Jobs Rhode Island via Twitter

“Electric Boat makes submarines — the most sophisticated submarines in the world — right here in Rhode Island. We’re training folks to do that. We’re training welders, pipe-fitters, IT jobs,” says Gov. Raimondo. More than 1,800 people have gone through the Electric Boat training and have been hired by the company. “If employers are willing to work with us and really engage, help us develop the curriculum, tell us who they’re going to hire, we’ll do it.”

The governor also says that Real Jobs Rhode Island is pushing the envelope and getting “creative” about the industries with which it works.

“When the commercial fishing industry came to us that was a new one. We have a large and vibrant commercial fishing industry, but it’s an aging industry. We kept hearing from fishermen, ‘Get some new blood.’”

Real Jobs RI teamed with the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island to create a classroom and hands-on apprentice program which teaches navigation, vessel maintenance, data collection, species identification and more. “New skills are needed. New kinds of boats, new kinds of technology, and in order to be productive, like any industry, you have to be trained,” according to the governor.

Rhode Island's apprenticeship program with Commercial Fisheries Center works to train new workers for one of the state's primary industries.
Apprentices from the Commercial Fisheries Center and University of Rhode Island program. Photo – Mitch Hatzipetro via URI

“I think apprenticeship programs can play an incredibly important role to upskill people. Most of the people who’ve gone through the (commercial fishing) apprenticeship program are now actually fishermen. It’s been hugely successful.”

The Westerly training center itself has been so successful that the state has announced it is opening another one in the northern town of Woonsocket, the former home of Rhode Island’s once-thriving manufacturing and textile mills. Most of those plants are gone, replaced by businesses such as Fidelity, Amica Insurance and CVS which has its headquarters in the town. The companies are going to help develop the curriculum.

“The goal is to make the center in Woonsocket mirror the workplace. When you walk in there, it’s going to look like a CVS retail shop or a data center at CVS or Fidelity. When someone leaves that center, they’re going to be ready to get a job,” the governor tells WorkingNation. “It’s for pharmacy technicians, data analysts, call center, high-end call center and sales.”

The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training projects that there will be more than 4,300 job openings specifically in the computer and math fields by 2024. There will be tens-of-thousands more in other fields that will require some level of computer skills. “Not everyone’s going to college, can afford it, should go, but everybody deserves a good job,” says Raimondo. “What we’re trying to do is make it so that every Rhode Islander has the skills they need to get a good job. That means starting from the time they’re in pre-K all the way through their career.”

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The beginning of 2018-2019 school year in August marks a milestone for the state’s ambitious two-year-old computer science initiative CS4RI. “Our goal was to make sure that every student in every grade in Rhode Island had exposure to computer science,” says Gov. Raimondo. “This year, when school opens in Rhode Island, we will have hit that goal. I’m incredibly proud of that. I think we are one of the only states in the country who can say that.”

Before the launch of CS4RI, only one-percent of public school students were enrolled in a computer science course. Now students are starting to work with computers beginning in kindergarten.

“They’re learning about sorting. They’re learning about logic. That’s in kindergarten and first grade. Then, in third and fourth grade, they’re coding. Then, in high school, they’re taking AP computer science. We’re doing it all across Rhode Island, and it’s a great thing,” Gov. Raimondo says.

For many, high school is the time when you start thinking about what you are going to do with your life. Another initiative, Prepare Rhode Island, is all about getting high school kids to think about their careers by exposing them to jobs they might never have considered before. “We started a summer internship program. I was with a bunch of kids. They were in high school. They’re working at banks, and at a defense company, at an IT company, and they love it,” explains Gov. Raimondo.

And for those high schoolers who want to go to college, the program also allows them to take college classes for college credit for free.

“Before I became governor, if you wanted to take college classes for college credit in high school, it was $200 a class. That was a deterrent. We said, ‘Nope. It’s going to be free, waive the fee’,” Gov. Raimondo says.

A recent report found that employers in New England remained concerned about a lack of qualified, skilled workers, especially in technology-intensive and growth-oriented industries.

“I was pleased to chair an effort all across New England to bring together employers and colleges to talk about, how do we have better, more effective, lower cost job training? Because we need to change,” says Gov. Raimondo. “College is too expensive. Flat out, it’s too expensive. Not everyone’s cut out for college, and not everyone can afford it.”

“Here’s the thing. In America, and in Rhode Island, half of the students who start college drop out,” says Gov. Raimondo. “They have no degree, a pile of debt, and it’s tough to get a job. They’re worse off than when they started. We got to work on that. It’s really all about making job training affordable and getting kids to think, when they’re in high school, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?’ That’s why we have to provide non-college alternatives and make college more affordable.”

The State of Work series for WorkingNation from Executive Producer and Senior Business Correspondent Ramona Schindelheim gives a first-hand look at the workforce development programs happening at the state level.

Join the Conversation: What do you think about Rhode Island’s workforce training initiatives? Tell us your thoughts on our Facebook page.

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