Steinberg warns R.I. workforce ‘at risk’ if societal issues not addressed

NEIL D. STEINBERG, Rhode Island Foundation CEO and president , told attendees Thursday at the foundation's annual meeting that the state is
NEIL D. STEINBERG, Rhode Island Foundation CEO and president , told attendees Thursday at the foundation's annual meeting that the state is "at risk" of not having the workforce it needs to properly operate in 10 years if societal issues aren't immediately addressed. / COURTESY RHODE ISLAND FOUNDATION

PROVIDENCE – During the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual meeting on Thursday at the R.I. Convention Center, CEO and President Neil D. Steinberg gave attendees a dire warning that the Ocean State’s workforce may not be in a decade’s time at a level that’s sufficient to keep the state properly functional.

Steinberg said during his speech that Rhode Island is “at risk” of not having the workforce it will need in 10 years if Rhode Islanders don’t urgently address “unsatisfactory” education outcomes, crisis-level mental health and substance abuse needs, deal with low birth rates and an aging population, and solve the affordable housing problem. He also said Rhode Island needs to focus on the lack of inclusive opportunities “that leave too many people behind.”

Steinberg told Providence Business News on Thursday that if the state’s workforce depletes in 10 years, Rhode Island’s ability to attract new industries to the state, as well as providing workers to existing companies, could be “jeopardized.”

Steinberg pointed to the state’s $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds as “no better example” to address the key issues facing Rhode Island. Back in October 2021, the foundation released its recommendations on how the state should spend the ARPA money, including spending $405 million in ARPA funds on housing; $255 million for behavioral health; $205 million for workforce development; $100 million for small business; and $50 million each for neighborhood trusts and immediate relief. Permanent investments are needed, Steinberg said, and not short-term expenditures.

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“We emphasized that it is critical that we do implementation planning now,” Steinberg said, and the public should “insist” on this from state leaders responsible for spending the ARPA funds over the next several years.

“We do not want to be here in five years asking whatever happened to that $1.1 billion. We need to invest wisely, not widely. Our leaders should not ask for hope; they need to give us hope and inspire positive change. The social and economic will for change must outweigh the political will. That is up to all of us,” Steinberg said.

The foundation’s top executive also told PBN that in addition to doubling down on supporting K-12 education, there also needs to be a “commitment and accountability” for Rhode Island to raise the educational performance level in order to compete with Massachusetts.

Thursday’s annual meeting also touched on various goals and initiatives the foundation both achieved and is continuously working on. Steinberg noted that the foundation last year awarded $76 million in grants, the second-most in the organization’s history.

The foundation, Steinberg said, also:

  • Continued the Long-term Health Planning Committee that started pre-COVID with a goal to eliminate health disparities in Rhode Island.
  • Continued the Long-term Education Planning Committee work that was started before the pandemic with the goal to ultimately provide every student in Rhode Island with an education and close the achievement gaps.
  • Raised $1.5 million from donors and Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island for an Afghan Relief Fund.
  • Created a committee and brought forth to the state 40 recommendations and guidance on how the proposed merger between Lifespan Corp. and Care New England Health System should go. The merger proposal has since been denied.

The foundation on Thursday also recognized three individuals – including the former state health director – and one nonprofit for their efforts over the past year. Former R.I. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott received the Public Service Award for her efforts in leading the R.I. Department of Health, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jane Hayward, former secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services and a former CEO and president of the Rhode Island Health Center Association, was given the Community Leadership Award, recognizing her for demonstrating innovation, impact, commitment and leadership.

Elizabeth Manchester, a partner with the law firm Partridge Snow & Hahn LLP, received the Harold B. Soloveitzik Professional Leadership Award for her work chairing the firm’s Charitable & Nonprofit Organizations Practice Group and the foundation’s Professional Advisory Council.

Papitto Opportunity Connection was given the Carter Inspiring Partner Award, honoring the donor who inspired the foundation with an approach and commitment to philanthropy.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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