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When will RI wake up to poorly educated work force?

December 30, 2010

Rhode Island’s business and political leaders constantly focus on the state’s high taxes as a roadblock to economic development. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay reminds us that our state has an even bigger barrier to creating good jobs.

University of Rhode Island economics professor Len Lardaro knows he doesn’t make any friends with his brutally frank assessment of our state’s work force. “The most glaring deficiency holding Rhode Island back is the lack of skills in the labor force.’’
The data paints a bleak portrait. Too many Rhode Islanders do not have the education or skills needed to be successful in the new economy.
Economists and policy gurus who study the Rhode Island economy all come to pretty much the same conclusion _ our state is not prepared for the jobs that will define the early decades of the 21st century.
In New England, Rhode Island is second from the bottom when it comes to bottom when it comes to the educational attainment of its work force; only Maine, with its fishing, timber and bed-and-breakfast economy has fewer workers over age 25 without a college degree.
Even worse is that Rhode Island has a much higher percentage of workers without high school diplomas than do our neighboring states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Our unemployment rate of 11.6 percent gives Rhode Island the dubious distinction of being the lone New England state with unemployment above the national average.
It wasn’t always this way. From the Civil War until World War II, our state was an industrial powerhouse, home to such companies as Brown & Sharpe, Corliss Steam engines and Nicholson File that were the envy of the industrialized world.
But a global economy that values brains more than brawn has left Rhode Island and its ill-educated work force behind. Policy expert Bill Taylor points out that two thirds of the economic growth in the state between 1998 and 2008 was generated by institutions and companies that mainly employ college graduates.
The issue nobody likes to talk about is embedded in the culture of a blue-collar state. The blue-collar manufacturing jobs have left but the attitudes of that era live on among too many native Rhode Islanders. Taylor, publisher of the one-line magazine,, has this startling factoid: The percentage of native-born Rhode Island adults with at least a bachelor’s degree is only 25 percent, while 50 percent of Rhode Island residents born in other states have at least a bachelor’s. What this means is that transplants are moving here to take jobs Rhode Islanders are not qualified for.
While Massachusetts and, especially Connecticut, pour state resources into public higher education, Rhode Island’s politicians have balanced the state budget by slashing millions from the University of Rhode Island.
This doesn’t mean that everyone has to go to college. Your plumber likely earns as much per hour as your family doctor. But we must do something to reverse our soaring high school drop out rates and make literacy a priority for our young people.
It is time to stop blaming the teachers, the schools and the government. We must take a sober look in the mirror and start taking responsibility for the education of our children and the retraining of our adults.
Rhode Island is a great place to live. Our challenge now is to make it a good place to make a living.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 every Monday. You can also follow his political reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at

One Comment leave one →
  1. Joan Countryman permalink
    December 30, 2010 7:17 pm

    Thanks, Scott, for putting the focus on a bigger question. Here’s an even bigger one: What is the purpose of education? Should schools produce citizens, employees, leaders, thinkers, workers? change agents? To each question I’d say the answer is yes; and like you, I think we need to look in the mirror and take respsonsibility for education at every level – so the democracy may survive.

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