Raimondo, Walsh lay out vision for workforce training at Providence Chamber annual meeting

U.S. LABOR SECRETARY Martin J. Walsh (left) and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo (right) discussed workforce training and retention during the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting Monday. /PBN PHOTO/NANCY LAVIN

PROVIDENCE – A top D.C. job hasn’t changed U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo’s perspective about how to grow the economy.

Indeed, Raimondo’s conviction that jobs – and the people who fill them – are the foundation to economic success sounds a lot like her approach to running Rhode Island as former governor. 

“My greatest worry is that we won’t have the talent we need,” Raimondo said, speaking to business leaders at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting on Monday. 

Raimondo and U.S. Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh laid out their plans for how to recruit, train and retain that talent as part of a question-and-answer panel discussion with Chamber President Laurie White and Community College of Rhode Island President Meghan Hughes.

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There’s certainly no shortage of federal funding available to help dig the country out of the pandemic crater, including a newly announced $5.5 million to expand broadband access and affordability in Rhode Island.

And that’s just the beginning, Raimondo promised, saying she expects “a minimum” of $100 million in federal funding to get affordable, high-speed internet to all Rhode Islanders. 

With that money comes jobs, such as construction workers to build out the miles-long stretches of fiber-optic cables, and information technology specialists to help businesses and colleges tap into that high-speed internet. Similarly, the $280 billion in federal funding under the CHIPS and Science Act to boost research and domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips requires workers of all skill and education levels to design, make and use the technology.

“The biggest threat to our economy is not inflation, is not a recession, it’s a worker shortage,” Walsh said.

He stressed the value of apprenticeships in particular to expose high school-age students to the types of stable, well-paying jobs these amply funded industries can offer. 

Then there’s the matter of keeping workers on the job, a problem employers are struggling to solve amid a tight labor market. 

Raimondo saw the pressure for employers to provide more than just a paycheck as a good thing.

“Employers have to up their game,” she said, explaining how workers are seeking out companies that promote environmental sustainability, diversity and other good-governance practices.

Workers also have practical needs too, such as child care and opportunities for professional development, Walsh said. He pushed back on the newly coined phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” insisting that workers were just as “hungry’ and “aggressive” as ever but lacked the training and support they needed to thrive in the workplace.

As Hughes pointed out, both Walsh and Raimondo have the on-the-ground experience running a city and state, respectively, to help them address these critical workforce training and retention needs. Hughes urged them to “strip away” the political jargon and complex policy ideas to a simple, action plan that “can actually happen.”

And what better place to try that plan than Raimondo’s former stomping grounds, which already boasts a rich educational landscape and strong workforce-training program, including the Real Jobs Rhode Island program started under Raimondo’s tenure as governor. 

“Use Rhode Island as a testing ground,” Hughes said.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com. 

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