Inaugural PBN Workforce Development Summit plots talent production

THE PANEL at the inaugural PBN Workforce Development Summit. From left to right, Mark S. Murphy, Lisa Abbott, Damian Ewens, Miellette McFarlane, Tim Hebert, Matthew Reeber and Douglas Sherman. / PBN PHOTO/ PAMELA BHATIA
THE PANEL speaks at the inaugural PBN Workforce Development Summit. From left to right, PBN Editor Mark S. Murphy moderator,, Lisa Abbott, Damian Ewens, Miellette McFarlane, Tim Hebert, Matthew Reeber and Douglas Sherman. / PBN PHOTO/ PAMELA BHATIA

WARWICK – Discussion at the first-ever Providence Business News Workforce Development Summit held Feb. 14 saw roughly 200 attendees listen to and share ideas on how to propel the state’s workforce into the 21st century.

Panelists at Wednesday’s event spanned Rhode Island’s major industries and represented the homegrown and relocated talent tasked with regenerating a workforce plagued by baby boomers retiring en masse, ever-evolving technology and a brain drain, among other obstacles.

The panel:

  • Lisa Abbott: As senior vice president of human resources and community affairs for Lifespan Corporation, Lisa Abbott is responsible for all aspects of human capital strategy and human resources operations. Prior to her tenure at Lifespan, Abbott served as the chief human resources officer for Penn State Hershey Medical Center and associate vice president for health affairs at Penn State’s College of Medicine.
  • Damian Ewens: A career educator and tech entrepreneur, Damian Ewens is a project director for nonprofit social enterprise Opportunity@Work. He manages the learning lab, TechHire Rhode Island which connects employers with IT talent with locals who have those backgrounds. He previously served as the CEO of Achievery – a digital credentialing platform accessed across 80 countries.
  • Miellette McFarlane: Relocating to Rhode Island from California in 2015 to serve in Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s administration, as interim director of Real Jobs Rhode Island Miellette McFarlane develops business-led partnerships with the R.I. Department of Labor and Training and creates programs which equip workers with job-ready skills. As of Jan. 1, 2018, Real Jobs RI has trained and placed more than 2,000 Rhode Islanders into good jobs with more than 300 participating businesses.
  • Tim Hebert: Also a perennial entrepreneur, and innovator, Tim Hebert has served as president and CEO of IT services firm Atrion for more than two decades. His success is rooted in the application of a people-centric IT services model. He currently wears multiple hats including CEO and founder of Trilix, a boutique IT firm committed to positive change, and Chief Managed Services Officer of Carousel Industries.
  • Matthew Reeber: A Pannone, Lopes, Deveraeux & O’Gara partner, Matthew Reeber has handled multiple – state and federal – cases which involve anti-discrimination, anti-retaliation, whistleblower, family and medical leave, unemployment compensation and wrongful termination statutes. He has been named a Thomson Reuters’ Rhode Island Super Lawyers Rising Star for the past seven years – an honor given to the top 2.5 percent of New England lawyers younger than 40 who have been in practice for less than a decade.
  • Douglas Sherman: As senior vice president and provost at New England Institute of Technology, Douglas Sherman is responsible for more than 50 academic programs, NEASC accreditation and 11 specialized accreditations. He helps prepare the next generation of the workforce by engaging with industry experts to identify theirs and global needs.

Each of the six panelists believes Rhode Island is a good place to grow jobs and each gave different evidence for why they support the capabilities of the Ocean State.

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Herself a millennial, McFarlane said an emphasis on making today’s youth “feel they have a future in Rhode Island” via innovation, quality leadership and a supportive business environment is the reason why Rhode Island’s future job growth is bright.

Rhode Island is a “great” state in which to run a business, said Hebert, however, as a business owner “you have to be engaged.”

Long-time entrepreneur Hebert knows business executives cannot wait in their offices for prospective employees “with all the skills you need to knock on your door … it’s not going to happen.”

But that is where Rhode Island’s size is one of its greatest strengths. The “one degree of separation” in Rhode Island culture, he said, allows this business community to develop strong relationships among one another easily – often with just one phone call.

In his opening remarks, PBN Editor Mark S. Murphy emphasized the need for human evolution in time with the forces which drive the economy.

“As our economy evolves, we know we must evolve with it, developing a workforce prepared to meet the demands of the future,” he said.

Stefan Pryor, the state’s first secretary of commerce said, “there’s nothing more important in our economy” than workforce development, emphasizing Murphy’s message.

After falling to the bottom of the state-by-state ranking of unemployment rates in 2013 and 2014, Pryor said the state has “emerged” and is “showing growth” rivaling the top growth rates in the nation.

This, he said, is thanks to efforts which include implementation of the following programs:

  • Strengthening public school education with CS4RI computer programming curricula
  • Offering debt repayment via the R.I. Wavemaker Fellowship to graduates of Rhode Island’s colleges and universities who take jobs in Rhode Island
  • Promoting free education through the R.I. Promise Scholarship piloted at the Community College of Rhode Island
  • Real Jobs Rhode Island, which Pryor called “an effort to ensure employers can craft their own workforce development program.”

The second half of the summit saw panelists answer questions about their experience growing skills among their employee base and identifying which areas the state and business community should focus its resources to further train and develop a job-ready workforce.

Reeber hit on the long-time challenge of enticing Rhode Island-educated talent to take jobs in-state and invest in Rhode Island’s future.

“We’re training people and they’re either going to go up I-95 or down I-95,” the best way to keep those individuals is to promote benefits found in Rhode Island which are not available in many, or most, other states.

For example, he said, paid parental leave is a benefit Rhode Islanders enjoy, but “that is not the norm” across the United States – especially during the Trump administration.

As the #MeToo movement and discussion of basic human rights color the greater societal conversation, he said, employers have to ask how best to “engage employees because they will expect more.”

Many of the panelists painted an optimistic picture of growing a talented, skilled up future workforce. They named health care, IT (cyber security), engineering, trades, life sciences and design as the fields with the most potential to grow employment for Rhode Islanders of all skill levels.

The root of much of the discussion around workforce development, as detailed by many of the panelists, is in broadening the focus of education to include training at multiple stages of an individual’s career.

From Rhode Island’s public schools to its 11 higher education institutions, “we cover the gamut of skill set development” in our schools today, said NEIT’s Sherman, however the conversation needs to include additional parties.

“We need you as employers to engage with us to tell us where those skills gaps are” and how to best fill them, he added, the growth of Rhode Island’s workforce is the responsibility of everyone.

McFarlane said R.I. DLT is “cutting away the bureaucratic silliness” to create opportunities for just such continuous education.

Taking their cues from engagement with local employers, Real Jobs Rhode Island, she added, “want[s] to create a network, not a system” to help “skill up” the local employee base moving forward.

On Wednesday, PBN simultaneously launched the #PBNWorkforceDevelopment hashtag so the entire business community could follow along. Select tweets from participants are listed below:


The inaugural event was sponsored by law firm Pannone, Lopes, Devereaux & O’Gara (presenting sponsor) and partner sponsors Bank of America and the New England Institute of Technology.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email,

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