On Tuesday afternoon, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed was joined by many other senators to announce “Rhode to Work,” an action plan designed to provide the best skills and training for both the currently unemployed and the workers of the future.
The action plan includes seven key concepts that can be addressed through policy, structure and funding changes to improve the job skills gap, something Paiva Weed said is “in crisis.”
“In recent years, despite significant investments we have made in education and workforce training, we continue to hear from businesses that they have trouble finding workers that have the necessary skills, both technical and social,” said Paiva Weed. With unemployment at 9 percent as of November 2013, Paiva Weed said it is important to take action now.
“As the report points out, unless the state figures out a way to raise the education and degree attainment of all of our students, several studies suggest that the workforce of tomorrow could include fewer Rhode Islanders with a college degree and more workers with less than a high school diploma,” said Paiva Weed. “At the same time, half of all new Rhode Island jobs are projected to require some form of a post-secondary credential. This is a really serious disconnect that could seriously jeopardize our state’s economic interests.”
The report, which is posted on the General Assembly’s website under reports (www.rilin.state.ri.us), includes a breakdown of just how the Senate proposes to address the seven strategies.
To create a “single, seamless and cohesive workforce training system,” the Senate proposes reaffirming the Governor’s Workforce Board as sole coordinator of workforce development, putting the state’s career pathways and training systems into a simple, one-point-of-contact system. According to Paiva Weed, access to all resources and programs needs to be in one place.
To improve overall job development, the plan includes exempting the Job Development Fund, which is paid into by the business community, from paying into the General Fund, thus maximizing funding put into job development and training. It also calls for greater transparency and accountability of workforce development programs and maintaining funding for innovative programs.
To help future workers, the plan includes policy changes regarding internships and apprenticeships, first by opening the bRIdge.jobs program to high school students and then expanding Apprenticeship tax credits to more industries.
Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio (D-Providence, North Providence) spoke further about the importance of internships and apprenticeships.
“The job seekers that have no experience are in a catch 22 situation,” said Ruggerio. “Companies won’t hire them because they don’t have the experience and they can’t get the experience because companies won’t hire them.”
The action plan also addresses transforming adult education by providing funding for instructors, classes and facilities to address a waitlist of 1,300 people. The plan calls for a re-imagining of the Career and Technical Education system, mirroring successful models such as Worcester Technical High School in Massachusetts.
Because of the anticipated need for post-secondary degrees in the future, the Senate hopes to eliminate barriers to attaining high school diploma equivalency. According to the report, 80,000 working-age Rhode Islanders don’t have a high school diploma, and the cost of GED programs recently rose with no waiver policy. The plan calls for the Department of Education to look for nationally recognized, less expensive alternatives, and for the General Assembly to establish a waiver.
Finally, the plan addresses closing educational attainment gaps by requiring the Board of Education to prioritize adult education, career and technical education, and credit- and non-credit programs at Community College of Rhode Island; introducing mentoring programs for at-risk students; and investing in pre-kindergarten, all-day kindergarten, summer learning and job programs.
Paiva Weed addressed that all-day K was previously a priority, but nationwide focus on pre-K derailed that.
“It is time for all-day K to happen,” said Paiva Weed.
Paiva Weed explained that the cost associated with this action plan would depend on how much the state decides to invest. The action plan lists only a few specific amounts: An estimated $1.2 million toward job and skill training by exempting the Job Development Fund from the 10 percent payment to the General Fund; an estimated $1.95 million to eliminate the adult education waitlist of 1,300; and a one-time $1 million incentive to re-imagine the statewide career and technical education system. There would also be a cost associated with all-day kindergarten in the state, but that is calculated by needed start-up costs per district and long-term funding, so Paiva Weed could not give an amount.
Overall, Paiva Weed believes this plan will simplify a complex system.
“This action plan will align and streamline all of our workforce development efforts,” said Paiva Weed. “The current system is too complicated.”
Ruggerio added that the plan benefits Rhode Island companies.
“The plans we announce here today will help workers succeed while helping companies in Rhode Island to not only remain here, but also expand here,” said Ruggerio.
Showing that this action plan is a bi-partisan effort, Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) also addressed how critical the “Rhode to Work” plan is.
“The steps outlined in the “Rhode to Work” action plan provide a practical way to better prepare the Rhode Island workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow,” said Algiere. “And it is not another study; it is a plan of action.”
Twenty senators joined the leaders for the announcement; a showing Paiva-Weed said proves this plan is the top priority.
Cranston Senator Frank Lombardi (D) says he is “very encouraged” by this action plan.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said Lombardi, adding that it is also a long time coming. “I think this is going to jumpstart a particular part of the population.”
Lombardi believes, as he says his colleagues do, that putting people back to work will serve as a “springboard” for the economy. Lombardi believes the aspect of the plan that looks to close the skills gap through education is the most important.
As a representative of the not-for-profit sector, Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, was invited to give his opinion on the plan; the Foundation has been leading the Make It Work campaign to improve economic development from the private sector.
“This is exciting,” said Steinberg. “This is economic development. This is education. This is training. This is closing the skills gap and very exciting that it’s today and tomorrow.”
He believes this plan will be successful in getting some of the 50,000 unemployed Rhode Islanders back to work. He was glad to see funding changes along with policy changes and a true partnership with the private sector.
“I have just one request,” said Steinberg. “I encourage, I urge and I implore the Senate leadership, the House and the governor to just do it. To not wait till the end of the session; to just get it done.”
Paiva Weed could not say the exact number of bills that could come out of this action plan, but she said a number of them would be introduced over the next few days, with others still in the drafting and legal phases.