PROVIDENCE – In an effort to break down traditional barriers to hiring, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo announced on Tuesday an investment of $45 million of CARES-Act funds for a workforce development partnership for Rhode Islanders that were left jobless during the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor’s office said the initiative, titled Back to Work RI, will help create “thousands of job opportunities” and accelerate the state’s economic comeback.
The pandemic had caused record-high unemployment claims across the U.S. during a time when the job market was already shifting further to require applicants to hold college degrees. According to the governor’s announcement, two-thirds of those who filed unemployment insurance were earning less than $20 an hour and typically came from the food industry, accommodation and retail sectors.
The Back to Work RI initiative will prioritize Unemployment Insurance claimants and “other traditionally underserved Rhode Island communities.”
The announcement comes as the additional $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits will run out after this week, and many are still left jobless. It is unclear when Rhode Islanders can start applying for the program. However, the website for the initiative said opportunities and updates will come “over the next few months.”
R.I. Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen said he hopes to have about 5,000 Rhode Islanders take advantage of the initiative, and is available for those who were impacted by COVID-19 and are eligible to work in the U.S.
“We had a higher unemployment rate during the [peak of the] pandemic,” said Jensen on a Tuesday afternoon call with reporters. “Where we are now is terrible. Double digit unemployment is not okay.”
“We want to get back under double digits and a much more healthy rate.”
Each participant in the Back to Work RI initiative will work with a “highly trained” career coach, who will provide personalized job counseling and will connect the participant with language support, financial coaching, child care and access to technology.
“Getting Rhode Islanders back to work doesn’t mean returning to the old way of doing business. We need to give Rhode Islanders the skills and support they need to succeed in the new economy while building pathways to good jobs for people who have traditionally faced barriers to employment,” said Raimondo in the announcement.
While participants go through the specialized, accelerated training programs, some will be placed with provisional employment tied to a specific position within a company.
A number of private partners are attached to the initiative and pledged to open opportunities to Rhode Islanders, including Care New England, Lifespan Corp., Twitter, CVS Health Corp., Amgen Inc., Bank of America, General Dynamics Electric Boat, International Game Technology PLC, Infosys, Laborers’ International Union of North America, Microsoft Corp., Raytheon Technologies, Salesforce.com Inc. and Service Employees International Union.
“Not every job is going to be coding and website development,” said Jensen of the changing workforce. “But every aspect of economic life requires technological skills.”
Jensen said he has not seen a post-COVID workforce development plan quite like this in any other state. He said he is most concerned with small businesses and those in the gig economy, who he said are “a few sales away” from not making ends meet.
“This is a full mobilization of the Raimondo administration,” said Jensen.
Alexa Gagosz is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Gagosz@PBN.com.
This story has been updated to include comments from DLT Director Scott Jensen.