Business savvy sisters say RI climate disappoints

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Twin sisters Jean Farmanian Ricci and Joan Farttarelli are disappointed by what Rhode Island legislators are accomplishing on their behalf in D.C. They feel that the state isn’t doing enough to support small business, and that blue collar workers especially are being overlooked.

Jean once ran her family’s business, Armen’s hardware. Now retired, she assists her sister, Joan, in running Smithfield Diesel Inc. The business began in 1974 when Joan’s husband, then a construction worker, used his training as a mechanic to fix heavy-duty trucks at night. Initially, they had one bay of a garage. Over time, the part time endeavor became a full time business, expanding to fill all five bays of the garage.

Joan is an experienced small business owner, and she’s seen it all – the good and the bad. Through it all, her independent business made it through, with her husband, Anthony Farttarelli, currently serving as president of Smithfield Diesel.

“When you work hard and your sweat is on every dollar you make, you fight,” she explained.

Fighting is exactly what Joan and her sister feel they need to do now. Both recently attended the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Conference in Washington D.C., a meeting of seven hundred business owners representing forty states. The two women were the only members representing the state of Rhode Island. During the event, they met with Senators Reed and Whitehouse to discuss a variety of issues relating to independent businesses, but Joan went in with one very specific focus.

One of Joan’s workers is struggling to pay off a student loan with 13-16 percent interest that he took out to get the specialized training he would need to work as a mechanic. She feels that this is not a singular occurrence, and blue-collar workers are being overlooked and are a valuable asset to the small business community. While there is a demand for skilled workers, Ms. Fartarelli points to budget cuts taking hits to high school vocational programs for taking students out of the market.

“How are we expected to grow our businesses without a skilled workforce?” she said.

She brought this specific incident up in each of the meetings she had with the senators, and was met with varying success. She said that Reed’s office took her very seriously, took many notes and seemed concerned about the topic. The meeting with Whitehouse’s office, she said, was less successful.

“The young man didn’t even ask me for the name of my business, and it very much felt like he was taking the meeting because he had to,” she said. “It was over in about ten minutes.”

Rhode Island is not the only state struggling with labor shortage. She mentioned that another member of the NFIB, a woman who owns a trucking company in Maine, faces many of the same problems.

“Everyone in the trucking and diesel repair industry are struggling to find workers to fill these jobs. We’re seeing the same thing with a lack of pilots, as their aren’t enough instructors willing to teach them,” She continued, “This is an overall shortage of skilled workers who can’t get the training they need.”

There are further options to alleviate interest levels for students attempting to further their education, and receive the skills training that they need.

Subsidized and unsubsidized loans are available at the federal level. Direct subsidized loans are available to students who demonstrate financial need, and the United States Department of Education pays all interest while the student is in school or goes into deferment. Direct unsubsidized loans are available to all undergraduate and graduate students; including those who do not demonstrate financial need. However, the student is then responsible for all interest on the loan, including while they are still enrolled.

Additionally, Pell Grants are an option for students demonstrating financial need. Grants, as opposed to loans, do not need to be repaid, but generally offer a student a smaller sum of money then a traditional loan, with the maximum Pell Grant for the 2017-18 school year was $5,920.

Along with federal loans and grants for students, Rhode Island offers a few alternative approaches.

The Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative, part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s jobs plan, is an economic development initiative that strives to create partnerships and award grants that help place employees in job openings, help up-skill current employees and create skilled workers for the future. The program seeks to train Rhode Islanders for jobs that already exist to help revitalize the economy. The grants are flexible, and available through the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.

Back in the academic realm, CCRI, a two-year community college offers “The Rhode Island Promise” Program, which allows any student who has graduated from a Rhode Island High School to attend for no cost. The CCRI website explains that the Rhode Island Promise program will pay for the remaining cost of tuition and fees in at least 12 credits after all other financial aid resources have been applied.

However, Joan doesn’t think this is the answer.

“If a person doesn’t have to pay for their education, they don’t understand the full value of it,” she said Friday, “We would be better off with a zero-interest loan system, where students work to pay back for their education, but don’t have to pay high interest fees.”

Overall, Jean and Joan really do not feel that their representatives in Washington are representing the Rhode Island business community well.

“Business is the fuel that drives the economy, and our legislators are pushing us out. There is not enough balance here,” Jean said, “Our representatives are voting to keep their offices, not for the good of the people.”

Jean believes she can present numbers to back up this statement.

In voting records released in 2016 for the NFIB, both Whitehouse and Reed were shown to vote favorably on issues relating to small independent businesses only 17 percent of the time. The NFIB states that a minimum 70 percent favorable voting record by members in the House and the Senate on issues favorable to small independent businesses creates a thriving business climate.

Beyond the representation of elected officials, Rhode Island is not performing well in the national NFIB rankings. In 2016, the state was ranked dead last. In an article on their website explaining the rankings, the NFIB explains that each state is evaluated on more then sixty categories. In the specific case of Rhode Island, the organization points to the state having “the nation’s worst infrastructure, high costs along with poor access to the capital.”

Joan and Jean do not find this takeaway surprising.

“Rhode Island is a hard place to start an independent business, and changes need to be made,” Joan said, “Or small businesses will continue to be pushed out of the state.”

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