City building pipeline to jobs in growing field

Under Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, Providence is the first community in Rhode Island to create a training program for residents interested in jobs in the health care and social-assistance field. It’s one of Rhode Island’s largest job sectors.

Since landing a $300,000 state grant for the PVD HealthWorks program last year, Elorza’s team has taken a measured approach, starting slowly and with minimal results so far. His administration plans to build the program into a pipeline for placing residents into health care jobs at different levels.

The HealthWorks initiative took a step forward last month, when the mayor announced that Jody Jencks has been hired as the program’s director.

“PVD HealthWorks will strengthen our local workforce by providing pathways to good jobs for residents,” Elorza said in a statement.

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The grant came from the state’s Real Jobs Rhode Island program. Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s administration launched the initiative in 2015. Since then, the state has provided about $23 million in grants across 16 job sectors, including health care and social assistance.

Real Jobs has been Raimondo’s “premier workforce-development initiative,” said Nora Crowley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Training, charged with administering and monitoring the grants.

So far, about 3,700 people statewide have been placed into jobs in all sectors through the program, although not all of them have been new hires. Numerous trainees already had jobs in given fields and used the program to move into higher positions, Crowley said.

Providence received its Real Jobs grant about a year ago and Jencks started her job in August.

Jencks, 43, will head the program through the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Brian Hull, the department’s director, had been serving as interim director of HealthWorks before Jencks was hired, Elorza spokeswoman Emily Crowell said.

In addition to Jencks’ salary of $82,500 a year, the $300,000 grant is being used to partner with various organizations and pay them to provide job training.

By the time the grant money runs out, the city hopes to get more funding from the state and possibly other sources to continue the program.

So far, the city has partnered with Rhode Island College and health care company Lifespan Corp., both in Providence, to train a group of 25 people for jobs as medical assistants. Of those, 23 graduated from the program in July and, since then, all but three or four have landed jobs, Jencks said.

In Rhode Island, she added, the pay for medical assistants typically ranges from $15 to $21 an hour.

The city also has partnered with the Genesis Center, which offers adult education and job training in Providence, to train a group of eight people as “direct-support professionals” for the health care field. Jencks said all but one or two have found positions. Those jobs typically pay from $11 to $19 an hour in Rhode Island.

In addition, a third group of 11 people started training Oct. 1 at the Genesis Center to become direct-support professionals.

The city plans to continue those partnerships and form new ones – from hospitals and health care companies to colleges and universities – while finding more people to enroll in the HealthWorks program.

“It takes time,” Jencks explained. “You have to think about the competencies needed and find the talent that supports that.”

The program is available to people of different education levels. In some cases, applicants may only need a high school diploma or equivalent, while those looking for higher-paying jobs may need two-year or four-year degrees or even graduate degrees.

“We take into consideration all those that apply,” Jencks added. “Every person’s situation is fundamentally a little different.”

There should be plenty of work available in the health care and social-assistance field. It is Rhode Island’s largest private economic sector, accounting for more than 19 percent of the state’s private-sector employment, according to the DLT.

Each month, Jencks said, there are roughly 3,000 job openings in the health care and social-assistance field across Rhode Island. And many of those jobs are clustered around Providence.

Health care jobs compose four of the 10 occupations projected by the state to add the most jobs in Rhode Island from 2014 to 2024. The job openings, which exclude turnover, are expected to come from new or expanding businesses.

Registered nurses ranked second on the list with 1,472 new jobs; nursing assistants ranked third with 1,124 new jobs; personal-care aides ranked sixth with 830 new jobs; and home health aides ranked eighth with 726 new jobs, state labor statistics show.

At this point, Providence is one of three lead participants in the health care and social-assistance portion of the Real Jobs initiative. The other two are Rhode Island College and Rhode Island Hospital, both in Providence.

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at