Governor’s panel tackles workforce issues

GOV. DANIEL J. MCKEE hosted a forum regarding issues associated with the state's workforce during his weekly Rhode Island 2030: Community Conversations on Thursday. / PBN FILE PHOTO/ NICOLE DOTZENROD

PROVIDENCE Issues associated with Rhode Island’s workforce were discussed during Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s weekly R.I. 2030: Community Conversations event on Thursday.

A panel of experts said the state has transitioned from an industrial industry to a digital and technology-based environment. Training and funding is needed to support growth of the future workforce in a relatively new and burgeoning digital sector.

The panel was hosted by Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, and Matt Weldon, director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.

The panelists discussed the issue of employers not having the ability to hire workers to meet demand. There was agreement that solving the labor shortage was a complex issue and the panelists seemed to be in agreement that the transition presents a unique opportunity for the state.

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“It means exciting new opportunities,” said Nina Pande, executive director of Skiils for Rhode Island’s Future, who noted that workers can reside in Rhode island and work remotely for global companies, such as Apple. “What we have, and because Rhode Island is so small, is an amazing moment in time to figure out how to do this well.”

Pande said the state needs to look at digital technology across all industries in the state and provide the resources needed to support it. Her organization sees about 1,000 job seekers per week, she said.

“We have a younger generation that has a gravitational pull to technology,” she said. “Let’s use it.”

Zoe Baird, CEO and president of the Markle Foundation, said that employers need to engage with workers to find out about their needs when they come back into the workforce. That way, she said, employers can understand the barriers that are leading to a decline in the workforce.

Baird said that Rhode Island has transformed from an industrial-centric state to one that is transitioning into a digital-based industry. “It’s a system we’ve never built,” she said. “Jobs are being changed dramatically by technology.”

Part of the Markle Foundations efforts is its The Rework America Alliance, a nationwide collaboration to enable unemployed and low wage workers to move into jobs in the digital economy by accelerating the development of a system of training programs that align with jobs that employers need to fill.

Pande said that a transition to a technology and digital-based job market is something her organization has been seeing as a result of the pandemic.

“The competition for talent is fierce,” she said, who noted there needs to be a strategic approach to training the future workforce to learn technology for a chance at employment in the current jobs market.

Pat Quinn, executive vice president, Service Employees International Union, District 1199, said there is a recognition of the transition to a digital world. He said that employees who acquire training to expand their job skills is important to the business community for worker retention.

“The job you have is not the only job you can do,” he said, noting that workers have the ability to expand their skills through training programs, and as a consequence, their careers.

Melissa Travis, CEO and president, Rhode Island Society of CPAs, echoed Quinn’s sentiments. She said in order for workers to enter the current technology-based workforce they need training.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of the technology component,” she said. “If you can sit at a computer you can rule the world.”

Michelle Pugh, director of Workforce Education, Amos House, said that while child care and transportation are important, clear cut initiatives and funding is needed to tackle workforce issues.

Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, Middletown, said her company Ocean Link Inc., a marine plumbing company she founded in 1989, is seeking to hire for three positions. She said workforce development is a priority for her House Small Business Committee.

“Everybody is operating at reduced capacity,” said Cortvriend, who is vice chair of the House Small Business Committee. “There are a lot of people on the sidelines. We need to change that.”

At the outset of the meeting, McKee said getting people back to work is a focus for his administration, and that employers are seeking to fill available positions. “The demand for our workforce is great,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos said that during her tour of the state’s 39 cities and towns one thing she keeps hearing is that employers have jobs available, but can’t find workers to fill positions. Matos, who was serving her 100th day in office, said that she has been speaking with business owners during her statewide tour.

The workforce topic was the ninth in a series of discussions the governor has hosted to develop a vision, strategy and plan for addressing the state’s most pressing issues by 2030. Topics previously debated include infrastructure, health, higher education, housing, and tourism, to name a few.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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