Call to arms for government, businesses

WORKING TOGETHER: Panelists discuss the ways government and businesses in Rhode Island can work hand in hand to increase access to funds and develop a larger talent pool for various industries during a virtual conversation moderated by PBN Editor Michael Mello, center, and Mark S. Murphy, top left. Clockwise from the top middle are: Eric M. Shorr, Michael E. McKelvy, Edward O. “Ned” Handy III, Marcela Betancur, Chris Parisi and Betty Robson.
WORKING TOGETHER: Panelists discuss the ways government and businesses in Rhode Island can work hand in hand to increase access to funds and develop a larger talent pool for various industries during a virtual conversation moderated by PBN Editor Michael Mello, center, and Mark S. Murphy, top left. Clockwise from the top middle are: Eric M. Shorr, Michael E. McKelvy, Edward O. “Ned” Handy III, Marcela Betancur, Chris Parisi and Betty Robson.

On the occasion of Providence Business News’ 35th anniversary, six business and community leaders joined in a virtual discussion on Rhode Island’s economy – and the challenges and opportunities ahead for the state coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The panelists included: Michael E. McKelvy, Gilbane Building Co. CEO and president; Edward O. “Ned” Handy III, Washington Trust Co. chairman and CEO; Marcela Betancur, the Latino Policy Institute executive director; Betty Robson, J.F. Moran Inc.’s president and a professor at Johnson & Wales University; Secure Future Tech Solutions President Eric M. Shorr; and Trailblaze Marketing President Chris Parisi, who’s also co-founder of the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition.

PBN Editor Michael Mello and Mark S. Murphy, a former longtime PBN editor and the current director of the John H. Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University, co-hosted the discussion.

MURPHY: Before we get to the pandemic elephant in the room, how much progress do you think the state has made over the last four or five years in reshaping its economy, including to begin shedding a well-known first-in-last-out-of-recession reputation. And I wonder, what does that mean to each of you?

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ROBSON: As a service provider to manufacturers and both importers and exporters in the state and throughout the region, we really get a firsthand view of what’s going on with businesses around us, and I think that we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding that trend that we’ve seen in the past. We’ve seen targeted aid and relief to specific areas and industries that were critical to help us come out on the good side of the pandemic. And we’ve seen help that has lasted beyond that and is targeted going forward. So, I feel really positive about where we’re going.

HANDY: I tend to be optimistic from the get-go. Obviously, the pandemic stalled us out a little bit. … We, in our book, are seeing our customers return to a pretty healthy level.

They are liquid, they’ve come through the pandemic, with a lot of support from us and from federal programs and R.I. Commerce and lots and lots of players. On the job-training front, there’s a lot of positive momentum, a lot of good, positive partnerships. I think we need more of it. But I feel like we’re well-positioned to sort of pick up where we left off pre-pandemic and keep building momentum.

THINK GLOBALLY: Susan Mocarski, founder and owner of Providence-based Cleverhood LLC, in 2020 said she significantly increased sales abroad to survive the pandemic. Panelists say many more R.I. companies are well-positioned to take advantage of similar opportunities.
THINK GLOBALLY: Susan Mocarski, founder and owner of Providence-based Cleverhood LLC, in 2020 said she significantly increased sales abroad to survive the pandemic. Panelists say many more R.I. companies are well-positioned to take advantage of similar opportunities.

MCKELVY: I do think back in the Great Recession, we were first in and last out. This recession that we’ve had with the pandemic, at least from a construction perspective, I think we’ve weathered it very well. We were preparing for the worst when we went into the late spring, early summer last year. And I think most businesses were preparing for this to be a long, drawn-out thing. But it did come back quicker and, you know, we did not close down construction in this state. One of the factors that we track is construction employment. …We did have some dips last year, but we’re back up at a really healthy rate of construction employment. Like most of our peer companies, we’re all searching for more people, which is a good thing for our industry, rather than having people on the bench.

MELLO: Interesting that you bring that up because some of the early data on GDP growth over the past year shows Rhode Island still lagging a little bit behind the region and the nation. Very much like that historical trend. So, it’s interesting, in your area certainly, there’s been a positive, but the jury seems to still be out a little bit in terms of overall GDP.

SHORR: There’s another bright spot in our economy as well, and that’s the technology sector, where there is virtually no unemployment with technology jobs. We have a very hard time finding good people to fill our open positions, and I think that’s something that can help us with our recovery, which is more focused on technology jobs from services, IT services, cybersecurity. A lot of jobs in that arena are supporting other industries as well, because we all have to embrace technology, no matter what the industry is. … I’m seeing clients add new computers, adopt cloud services, new hires. So, I’m very optimistic that trend has been continuing. And I think that’s a real key to help us succeed moving forward.

PARISI: We always look at rankings with Rhode Island and according to Moody’s, recently we’re No. 1 in the region and I think in the top 10 in the whole country when it comes to recovery pre-pandemic to post-pandemic and that’s obviously a much better trend than what we’re used to. … But I will temper that a little bit with the small-business community, which I represent. … I would say the recovery is not equitable across the board, and it’s something that we have to make sure that, while our maybe midsize businesses and our larger corporations have been recovering well, we can’t forget about the small businesses. They don’t have the capital to withstand losses as much as the larger businesses do. So, we have to ensure they continue to survive into 2022, so we can have a full recovery with all of our businesses.

MURPHY: We’d like you to think about the future in really sort of a hard-nosed way. Look at what you see in the future. What do you see coming into the next five years?

ROBSON: I think that we’re going to see more activity concentrated in international trade, which is a great thing. And I think that there has been a significant recognition that imports are very important to the economy. And they’re not part of the evil empire; they actually help to support our manufacturers. They’re important to us to continue to be able to export to other countries because we need that trade partnership to exist. I think it throws off our GDP numbers a little bit because as our imports increase, it drags down the net export figures. But that’s not necessarily a negative thing. It’s still putting a lot of people to work. Our ports are doing great, and I think that we’re going to start to see even more activity around wind, which is really fantastic, wind energy, and, you know, more of those types of industries that are going to provide sustainable options to us all.

BETANCUR: The next five years, they can look very differently depending on where we make investments. The investments that we need to do today on not only the young population, but also our adult workforce population have to be very specific. Because we talked about the recession back in 2008 and 2009, Latino and Black communities did not get out of that recession at the same rate that everybody else did. And so, yes, there are certain areas and, you know, in groups that will do well in the next five years. Nevertheless, none of our areas where jobs will be will do well in the next five years if we don’t make investments today. And those investments are workforce development, that really encompasses the different needs of communities, also education, not only early education but post-secondary education. And so, there’s, there’s this part of me that sees the next five years as a little bit grim unless we make very bold investments, not only coming from our corporate community partners, but also our government partners. … Otherwise, Latino and Black communities in the state will not [make] it out of the recession for the next 10 to 15 years, and we are a very large and incredibly important part of our community. So, as long as those communities are not doing well, no one else should be doing well.

MURPHY: Marcella, do you see the appetite for that kind of approach that you hope happens?

BETANCUR: I would like to say, yes. I think the pandemic was in a really sad way the best way to demonstrate to different sectors, private and government sectors, that there had been so many practices and policies that were inadequate to deal with our communities. And so, I do think that there’s an appetite because in order for our economy to grow, we have to bring the people who were systematically … kept away, right? And so, in order, technology can grow even more. Small businesses are dominated by Latino communities here in our state. So, how are we investing thoughtfully in them? I do think that there’s an appetite but are we brave enough to do it?

PARISI: I would just add to Marcela’s point, right, talking about investments, the Latino population is the fastest-growing population in Rhode Island. So, it’s inevitable. It just makes economic sense to ensure that we’re supporting all of our communities. And talking about investment and going back to Betty’s points, let’s look at where the state’s bond referendums have gone out to. You know, you talked about wind energy, that was one of them. We talked about ports, right? There’s the R.I. Ready program, that’s going to make little mini clients. It’s across the state. Increase international trade and maybe thinking about our South American partners, in addition to the traditional ones that we have.

HERE TO STAY: Laura Yalanis, director of tax service for Kahn, Litwin, Renza & Co. Ltd., works in her home office in 2021. Some panelists believe remote work will become a permanent benefit offered by many local companies.
HERE TO STAY: Laura Yalanis, director of tax service for Kahn, Litwin, Renza & Co. Ltd., works in her home office in 2021. Some panelists believe remote work will become a permanent benefit offered by many local companies.

HANDY: We can’t afford to leave such, a such a big part of our economy on the sidelines. I think people are actually getting more educated, spending more time, thinking about how, speaking of the corporate community, how we can be more helpful, more active, more involved, bringing along the entire population and the entire economy, and I think going into the pandemic, and actually even during it with the Paycheck Protection Program, for example, I witnessed a level of partnership, cooperation among all of the banks, around the table with Rhode Island Commerce. I’m talking about how to, how to use the various programs that are available to help as many Rhode Island businesses as we possibly can. And we did it. … I think if we learn one thing from that, it’s that we can do a lot more working together, and we can build partnerships to try and sort of support the entire economy. And I feel optimistic that the next five years, leveraged with technology, we’ll see even more progress on that front.

MURPHY: A lot of folks see higher education and health care … as bright spots, as a large piece of a growing economy. The state commissioned a report that identified the blue economy as something that they expect to grow. Do any of you see different industry sectors that are poised for growth? And if you do, how important is state support for individual sectors? A lot of people in business say it’s not the state’s role to pick winners and losers.

SHORR: Specializing in a few areas where we can really excel is a key to success, while still supporting a variety of all of our populations and communities. So, we definitely still need to do that. But you can’t specialize in everything, then you’ll do not a very good job at everything. But if we pick a few good industries, and obviously it makes sense – we are the Ocean State – blue jobs and the blue economy is something that we should be investing in, green jobs as well. And then that support, those jobs will support a variety of other industries, including IT services and the printer down the street and the deli down the street.

MURPHY: Who’s doing the picking?

SHORR: Well, I think that’s a partnership between all of us and the government to really focus on a few areas.

MCKELVY: One of the things that you see across the country, and we’re in a position where we do work around the United States, is the other states will pick an industry to attract to their state. They might pick the automotive industry, or they’ll pick the life sciences industry, or they’ll pick the food and beverages industry. They have a unique niche, due to maybe one anchor company, and then they reach out and they try to attract other companies that use the same supplier base to the one anchor company. So, I think if we as a state are trying to appeal to everyone, then we may end up appealing to no one in that respect. There is some rationale to having, I don’t know if it’s picking favorites, but it’s at least getting the right building blocks in place.

ROBSON: What we’re talking about here is the principle of comparative advantage. And my MBA students have this drilled into them for the years that they’re in the program and, you know, we have to look at what our resources are. And they include land, labor, capital tax, policy skills, schools. We have to look at all of that. … Other states do this, too. In a partnership with Rhode Island Commerce, that’s really a great way to see this happen, because as we identify some industries that might be of particular value, that bring a lot of jobs, that bring a lot of economic activity into the state and really use our resources wisely. That’s how we really can accomplish our goals.

HANDY: One of the things we need to do is define, when we say blue economy, how wide is that? We’ve got everything from boating recreation, to wind, to carbon fiber technologies in Bristol, to boat manufacturing. We need to define it really well and then figure out if that’s one of the areas that we think we should focus on – and I think it is – let’s make sure we understand the totality of it.

PARISI: One of our best resources is the universities that we have here in Rhode Island and particularly in Providence. If we can couple that with a startup hub and really invest and recruit and connect the talent with the types of businesses that are going to be here for decades, that will create not only an improvement for our economy but also for our quality of life. We’re going to bring in the younger folks, the young professionals, who will then start to have families that increase their incomes and increase the households. … We just need one or two blue chips, because once we have that and we can have the smaller businesses that surround it, that’s how Silicon Valley grew.

HANDY: The model of the CCRI Westerly Education Center and [General Dynamics] Electric Boat is in place, we see it working. If we could take that model and apply it to other parts of our economy, I think we could do it. And I think [Cambridge Innovation Center Providence] is at the hub of it all on the front end of business to business development. We’ve got a lot of tools in place to move this relatively small state forward quickly.

BUILDING BLOCKS: R.I.’s manufacturers and construction companies helped keep the local economy going after COVID-19 hit. Above,  Gilbane Building Co. employees work on the new East Providence High School in 2021. 
BUILDING BLOCKS: R.I.’s manufacturers and construction companies helped keep the local economy going after COVID-19 hit. Above, Gilbane Building Co. employees work on the new East Providence High School in 2021. 

MELLO: Ned, beyond the one, the model you just identified, it sounds like the one thing you all agree on is, for the rest of those building blocks, identifying them is still very much a work in progress. It’s something the state’s been working at for many, many years.

MURPHY: Yes, it’s ongoing, but it also depends on the business community reaching out to the government and saying what it is that has potential for growth. It can’t be one group, one entity making those decisions, which goes back to the question of picking winners and losers. Winners and losers are picked, in a great sense, by the market. But the market is really the people in the companies who are here.

MELLO: We’ve talked about where you all see the economy right now. How important was it that manufacturing and construction, in particular, were never forced to shut down operations in the state at any point over the last 18 months?

MCKELVY: It was really important. Looking back on it retrospectively, construction in particular, safety and doing the right thing to keep our people safe is something that companies like ours and other trades across the state have been really focused on for many, many years until it was somewhat natural for us during the pandemic to put measures in place to keep our people safe. … That really kept the economy going during a time when a lot of things were uncertain. And even a lot of our clients and customers, they were not coming into work. They were shut down, so to speak, in their office environments, yet we continued to build future capacity for them in the construction environment. When you look back, even outside of Rhode Island, that ability to keep construction going is something that’s kept this recession probably less severe than it would have been otherwise.

SHORR: We support several construction companies, and that was something that kept my team busy supporting them. We also have a few manufacturing clients as well. So, that was definitely a bright spot during the very dark days of COVID, particularly earlier on. With that being said, we were also very busy helping many kinds of businesses, even businesses that had closed their offices, they were still working. I don’t believe any IT services company shut down, we were helping everybody make that rapid shift to remote work.

MELLO: The pandemic forced many businesses of all sizes to adapt to new technology much faster than they’d planned. Aside from new ways to manage production and the workforce, how can this shift be a permanent revenue generator or engine for declining expenses?

SHORR: What we were all forced into, the remote workplace, is not going away. This is a permanent shift. I’m starting to see with some of my clients, some of their team members are starting to come back to the office, but more in a hybrid fashion. Maybe like only in the office a couple of days a week. In my particular office, out of my 22 employees, I have four or five who are in the office every day, and the rest of us are still remote. So, there’s a lot of benefits to this new model that we’ve been shifted to, including overhead savings. There’s a lot of productivity savings regarding travel time. And … we’re seeing permanent productivity changes. We really have to leverage this technology, embrace it.

HANDY: I think the confidence that we’ve built, being able to be remote, we’ve moved everything to the cloud, so we can now tack on technology, for account openings, for account management, and we’re seeing huge productivity there. In our mortgage business, we’re closing things a lot faster because we’ve automated signing and documentation. … Now, we haven’t abandoned the personal touch, and we never will. We think it’s a hybrid. It will also certainly be a hybrid from a workplace standpoint, but we also think our customers will want to be able to get to us in person, in an automated fashion.

MELLO: Can the state use its small size to its advantage to come up with a plan to leverage technology, rather than it being company by company or program by program?

SHORR: My team and I volunteered through [R.I. Commerce] to provide free IT support through the state. There were a lot of programs there, and I think that doesn’t necessarily have to end with COVID, which I hope ends very soon. We can continue to leverage technology and use our resources to be able to provide guidance to the small businesses. You know, technology is the great equalizer. Small businesses have the same access to technology today, thanks to the cloud, that large businesses have. So that’s something that for businesses overall and state government, there should be a partnership out there to help all of our communities embrace technology and work much more efficiently.

HANDY: Workplace training is an area that certainly could be automated and done in bigger group forums, and done remotely, and probably in a more productive fashion.

MCKELVY: There’s another side to this that could be a detriment to us. And that is that we don’t have to move people here for every job. In some cases, we can attract talent from across the country, and they can work remotely from their homes. And so, the past paradigm of we’ve got to move everybody to Rhode Island when we hire somebody, we’re trying to attract talent. In some cases, that’s not practical, and it’s not the real world that we’re in. So that growth, in some of our companies, may be occurring actually remotely, due to this technology.

PARISI: I heard Eric talk about small businesses and technology being the great equalizer, and that’s certainly true. But I would say, I saw firsthand that small businesses didn’t have quite the same access to the technology that maybe other businesses had and they did need some technical assistance that R.I. Commerce was able to help them with. … We saw actually our business grow because more small businesses and midsized businesses needed to move their business online. We created more e-commerce websites the past year than the previous five years and small businesses did adapt. They built this quick, little, easy online store that was able to sell gift cards online during the beginning of the pandemic. They now have access to more consumers than they had previously, and you combine it with their current brick-and-mortar strategy. It’s something that will hopefully continue to grow and support our small businesses in being able to compete with the large Amazons of the world.

MELLO: Former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo told PBN in early March 2020 that she was proud of her multiyear reengineering of R.I. Commerce Corp. but agreed the true litmus test would be how the state rebounded from the next recession. We all know what hit us later that month, but my question as we head into a new year with a different governor is this: Is there broad agreement on where R.I. Commerce’s focus needs to be in a post-pandemic economy?

PARISI: The stats do show from a larger standpoint that the governor and R.I. Commerce have facilitated growth that leads us to being one of the top recovering states in the region. But when it comes to reality, sometimes that doesn’t always represent so well. One thing that I feel that Commerce can play a pivotal role in our state’s economic future is when it comes to focusing on the small businesses, to ensure that they can recover equitably, as these larger businesses have recovered. And you balance that with immediate help for financial and technical assistance. And then we utilize these funds, so that we can think about, as we all talked about, what’s ahead, what does the next decade look like? There was this perception that R.I. Commerce previously was only for big businesses, and they’ve shown, and I’ve seen firsthand, they are certainly for small businesses, but you can’t be exclusively for one or the other for our state to be prosperous.

ROBSON: I recently attended a meeting of the Small Business Advisory Council, and R.I. Commerce was present. There were probably 30 people representing all different areas of business and economic activity in the state. I felt really good as a business in Rhode Island, knowing there was a mechanism to get our voices heard and to express our interests. I do think that the governor’s office is getting a pulse on what’s needed. In terms of international trade, I don’t think everyone understands how well-poised Rhode Island is and has been, between the efforts of R.I. Commerce, and through the Chafee Center. But we’ve also got very close ties with the U.S. Commercial Service here in Rhode Island. That all starts with Rhode Island Commerce. … And I think that’s where our fun size, you know, really helps because we do have access. Our voices are heard, and I do feel confident that, you know, we will move in the right direction because of that.

HANDY: Mark, I’d be curious to hear you talk a little bit about whether we, as a state, and our economy take advantage of our incredible higher ed mix as much as we ought to.

MURPHY: There’s a recognition that these assets have to be used more. I think Brown University, with the Nelson Entrepreneurship Center, has made a significant investment. I think other schools, including Bryant, are recognizing that they need to connect more with the general economy and take advantage of their assets that are unique, convenient. Infosys came here because of Rhode Island School of Design. And it’s not about art. It’s about design, it’s about human interaction with the workplace. So, I think that those are things that the schools have to do a better job of marketing to the global economy.

MELLO: Marcela, people who identify as either Hispanic or Latino now make up nearly 17% of the state. Are you seeing enough outreach to this growing workforce by the business community and through state training programs? If it were up to you, what would be the highest priority to increase the impact of Hispanic or Latino companies in the state?

BETANCUR: Seventeen percent is a really great jump. But … that might be an undercount. We have been a very large percentage of our state for decades and have been an incredibly important part of manufacturing and other industries. To be very honest. I don’t think that there has been enough investment from the private and government sectors into the Latino community. And what I mean by that is, investments into the Latino community means investing in the systematic reasons why, why am I the only Latina sitting here today? Why do we not have more Latinos and other individuals of color sitting in some of and different C-suites and different CEOs? And that is because we have not invested [both as] a state and a nation, in general, in the education and economic equity of our community. What I believe should be the biggest investment is, I think, as the private sector, the business sectors, we need to invest in education and in the holistic life of Latinos. What that means is housing. … It has an impact on how and where you live, and where you’re going to be able to work. We need the Latino community to be part of our organizations. But, also, be part of the market that we’re selling to. And in order to do that, we need to continue to invest, again, in their education, their health and economic equity.

MELLO: And how about the Hispanic- and Latino-owned companies? What more can or should the state do to help raise their profile?

BETANCUR: The Latino community is very entrepreneurial. However, we’re less likely to succeed in the long term. And sometimes that is due to language barriers, it is also community-engagement barriers. I do appreciate that R.I. Commerce and other organizations, or communities, have kind of circled around Latino businesses to support something as simple as a website. For so many businesses that could have meant the difference between succeeding and not. So, I think that in order for us to do so, we have to understand that there’s cultural differences, but there’s also community-engagement barriers. … We are everywhere in the state, in every single one of the 39 cities and towns. So, it is incredibly important that we invest in them and understand what the needs of those businesses are.

MELLO: Michael, I know your company has been pretty aggressive over the years in trying to attract this workforce.

BLUE GROWTH: Rhode Island’s ocean-based economy is poised for growth. It includes wind energy, boating, manufacturing and seafood, among other products and services. Above, Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, pulls up oysters from his oyster farm in 2020. 
BLUE GROWTH: Rhode Island’s ocean-based economy is poised for growth. It includes wind energy, boating, manufacturing and seafood, among other products and services. Above, Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, pulls up oysters from his oyster farm in 2020. 

MCKELVY: Absolutely. Something that we feel is really necessary is to reach folks who, when they’re coming out of high school, even when they’re in high school, so we can bring them into our industry. And one of the programs that we’ve been big in supporting is ACE, which is a program for architectural construction and engineering work. We mentor with high school students, and we try to bring them into our industry from the beginning. There are other programs, such as Gear Up, that we participate in as well. This whole factor of teaming with education can help bring a more diverse, powerful workforce to our industry, which is so in need of resources. I mean, it’s the right thing to do, obviously because the percentage of folks in construction that are of a diverse background is nowhere near the population and we need to be reflective of the communities in which we work. So, building that workforce, building those builders of the future, from the high school time frame and even inspiring them in middle school and younger is a great thing to do, because we’re going to have to do this. Our population and our industry are aging out. It’s estimated that in 15 years, 50% of the people that are in labor in construction are going to be retired. So where are they going to come from? They’ve got to come from the greater population.

BETANCUR: We’ve really come along in how companies engage with Latinos. But one of the things that I want to make sure that we hear is, yes, we definitely should incorporate Latino young people, as well as returning adults, into different workforce spaces. But we should not think of Latinos as just as a labor community. We are incredibly talented, we’re incredibly smart and we should also be executive administrators. So, let’s think about that. Because you’re right, in the next 20 years, it’s not just going to be the laborers we are going to need. We’re going to need people sitting in our executive seats to also be there, and those people should look like the individuals that are growing in our entire state.

HANDY: Michael, you mentioned aging in the construction industry, the same is true in the banking industry. We’re going to have to repopulate the entire population over the next 10, 15, 20 years as well. Year Up is as an agency that we’ve hired a number of people out of, young people mostly, technology oriented, but just a great organization that’s bringing young people to the right kinds of training and ultimately landed them in good jobs.

MURPHY: Is there more and deeper into the educational system that companies can go? How does the community reach down that far to get students engaged, interested and eventually in good careers?

SHORR: As Michael mentioned earlier, I think we need to not just focus on the higher education level but get involved in the schools. I think that’s really key, particularly for many different industries, including IT services. One of the things that we’ve also done, we’ve had interns from The Met school, we mentored kids for a couple of years, where they come into our office and work with our engineers. We’ve also done stuff with Year Up. I think that’s a really important component, to get kids interested and also trained early. … Out of my 22 employees, eight have done some kind of internship, or come from a program, [such as MotoRing Technical Training Institute], or also, we have some kids from New England Tech. Those are all starting young, getting kids interested early.

MURPHY: How are these younger students, again, third or fourth graders, second graders, going to be able to connect with the digital economy early enough to really become interested? Gina Raimondo, when she was governor, said she wanted computer skills to be taught from the beginning, from kindergarten, so that young students were aware, recognized, comfortable, then thought for themselves and were creative about their careers. That’s why my bigger question is, is there a way that the community can get involved earlier?

MCKELVY: One of the things I’ve seen that’s been successful is programs for third, fourth and fifth graders, and the promotion of STEM, because that’s an age time where they haven’t really thought if things are not cool, and they’re excited about engineering and they’re excited about learning. And it sticks with them in the third and fourth, fifth grade, and then it can propel them into the later school years where they have an excitement, and they reach out. One of the organizations I’ve worked with through the years is the National Society of Black Engineers. And they do a program with third and fourth, fifth graders, where they get them really, really excited about robotics and technology. … And their parents see this as well. And then they all start to have a greater expectation for their future than they would have had otherwise. And so, I think, working together with the state and with private business and the education system, to target children at that age, is really all about our future.

HANDY: There needs to be a better, more direct discussion about how corporate Rhode Island can get involved in the schools. I mean, we do some things on financial literacy with some of the schools, but we don’t hit them all. … I think, I think we need to hear from the Education Department. We need to hear from the state. We need to have, you know, we had that $75 million award that we won. I was on the board of the committee that sort of governed that. And there was one other businessperson in the room. The teachers union was well-represented but there wasn’t enough of the business community in the mix there. It’s something I’ve thought about for my entire career in Rhode Island. How do we how do we get together and partner on building in this small state the best education system we can, and it just, it’s been a frustrating reality to figure out how best to engage. It is not about money. It’s got to be about bodies and people getting involved in mentoring and creating internship opportunities.

MURPHY: Gov. [Daniel J.] McKee and others have talked broadly about spending $1.1 billion in federal pandemic aid that comes from the federal government. What should the state’s priorities be for spending this money and how should they be set?

PARISI: I agree with the governor. Let’s get 10% into our economy now. That will still leave a billion dollars for us to have a long-term plan. Let’s think about the next decade for that billion dollars. But there are certain segments of our state that we need to support now. And obviously from the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition’s perspective, one of those segments are the small businesses. Many of them are reaching a boiling point. This past year and a half has felt like 10 years. Some businesses are running out of time. … Many small businesses are just mentally exhausted. They’re financially struggling, and they need help now.

HANDY: Chris, is that a state-level PPP-type program? Is it a grant program? Is it a low-interest loan program, in your view?

PARISI: That will now be a state program. And, and with that state program for small businesses, we are thinking of things such as financial and technical assistance. So, from the financial side, let’s identify those industries, like travel, tourism, indoor recreation, businesses that depended on industries that have fallen. Let’s ensure that we keep them afloat with financial-targeted assistance and then technical assistance, in addition to the traditional technical assistance of making sure they’re able to apply for licenses, apply for grants. Let’s give them the tools to succeed long term. Let’s educate these small-business owners on how we can work more with technology. How we can build websites and e-commerce to have a different platform. And how we can educate these small-business owners so that they can either transform their business or grow their business in a way that will have long-term dividends with this one-time fund.

WORKING MODEL: General Dynamics Electric Boat is among the local employers to take advantage of job training through the Westerly Education Center and the Community College of Rhode Island. Above, Michael Stuba trains for a job as a pipe fitter at Electric Boat in 2018. Some panelists see the program as a model for other industries.
WORKING MODEL: General Dynamics Electric Boat is among the local employers to take advantage of job training through the Westerly Education Center and the Community College of Rhode Island. Above, Michael Stuba trains for a job as a pipe fitter at Electric Boat in 2018. Some panelists see the program as a model for other industries.

HANDY: We’d be happy to help think through the program. And we’d also be happy to help on the technology front, to the extent that some of our people could be helpful, and mentoring roles are, you know, just advisory roles on the tech side of things.

MURPHY: How do you define small businesses that are most in need of help and, as investments, have the longest long-term return for the community?

PARISI: Well, the SBA says under 500 employees, but for what we have seen, it’s those businesses that are really [up to] 100. These are the smaller businesses in our economy that, for instance, they’re the ones that didn’t have the cash flow to weather a storm that has six months with less income coming in. … And to answer the second part of your question of, how do we make it targeted, it’s something that the state, as well as the business community, has to get involved in to let them know which industries that are struggling and why. And then let’s ensure that we have a hyper-focused approach, so we’re not wasting any money going to businesses that do not need it.

MELLO: Businesses often remind political leaders that they create the jobs, not government. But recognizing the unusual economic challenges created by the pandemic, what one thing could Rhode Island’s political leaders do in 2022 to help strengthen the economy?

HANDY: Education.

SHORR: I would say spread out the help to as many businesses as possible.

MCKELVY: Many things have been approved in a portion, but the money has not been distributed or really put it into the economy. We’ve had $278 million worth of school construction that’s been approved, but only about $38 million of it has been sent out for design at this point. So, there’s funds available. There are things that could really vibrate the economy right now. And so, if I can send a message, let’s get with it. Let’s get on it.

ROBSON: For me, I think it’s something that we’ve started to do pretty well. I think that R.I. Commerce does it relatively well. … It’s making those connections. We’re a small state. And when government and quasi-government agencies participate in making connections between different industries in Rhode Island, so that they can support one another, I think that that’s really necessary. I think it’s doable, and I think it really will have a long-term impact.

PARISI: Rhode Island Commerce has been doing more of this lately but, connecting with the business community, don’t make these exclusive decisions behind closed doors. Get a pulse of what’s going on from the biggest industries and businesses to the smallest ones. And then make a collaborative decision.

MELLO: Before we wrap up, I’ll briefly share some results of our biannual business survey. Quarterly business growth rebounded this past summer to its highest levels since 2017. Net income also bounced back from the historic lows of the last two quarters, leaving about 57% of respondents expecting an improved economy over the next year. That compares with 42% who felt the same a year ago. And, for the first time since 2019, an improving economy again has a majority of businesses expecting to hire in the next quarter. Is this just wishful thinking coming out of a difficult year, or do some of you share the same growing, near-term confidence, even amid an ongoing pandemic?

PARISI: My perception is that you can only go one way when you’re at rock bottom. So, if a lot of these businesses are saying, I’ll hire more than before, it’s because they couldn’t hire. Or I’m going to grow, it is because they had their worst losses. So, I think there’s a mix. There is this hopefulness. And I’m [a] hopeful person and I want to continue that positivity but I’m also a pragmatic person and realize that I think this trend is great that it’s going upwards, but it’s because we were going downwards.

MCKELVY: I think that the uptick is because it was so low. But at the same time, I think we’re very optimistic about the future in our industry. And we’re seeing that a lot of programs and projects that were stalled in 2020 were not fully canceled, they were just pushed into 2021.

And so that is really making the balance of this year fairly strong. Some concerns about the rising inflation and what that might do to projects starts going into 2022 and 2023. So, several folks, now, it’s not the pandemic that’s the issue, it’s can we afford the price of steel? Can we afford the price of wood? Those things have quadrupled and are at all-time highs.

HANDY: It would be hard to disagree that we are somewhat bouncing off of the bottom, but I am optimistic. I do think there’s a momentum, as I said earlier, you know, our deferrals where we helped our customers who needed help are virtually zero now, and customers are paying, can pay. I think we’re going in the right direction. I think we’ve got to build these partnerships we talked about and set the sort of the plan in place and think long term.

SHORR: I’m optimistic as well. I see among my client base, they’re hiring, they’re growing. We, as leaders, we need to keep our foot on the gas and make sure that everybody participates in this recovery.

ROBSON: I’m optimistic. I think that our decision to not shut down manufacturing during the pandemic kept us in the game, it kept our businesses alive. It kept importers and exporters in the game as well. I just see positive results going forward.

MURPHY: I think optimism can become self-fulfilling, right? I mean, if you feel better and you act as if you are better, then it means you do become better. I hope that businesses going forward, and without patting ourselves on the back too much, look at markets not just outside of Rhode Island but outside of the U.S. There is great opportunity across the world for a lot of businesses in Rhode Island. It’s not just companies that we think can only do things here. It’s a very large marketplace. And it’s available.

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