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RI needs an educated workforce

March 8, 2012

It seems that everyone in Rhode Island’s political, business and organized labor leadership has a solution to bringing more jobs to our state. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says we need to get back to basics.

We all know that Rhode Island has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. Every month brings yet another sad statistic about the number of jobs our state has hemorrhaged since the recession began.

What we don’t hear much about is the jobs that are going begging in our cozy corner of southeastern New England. Keith Stokes, Rhode Island’s economic development director, says one of the biggest frustrations he has is when an employer tells him that they want to hire, but just can’t find qualified workers in our state.

How can this be?

Well, look no further than the education and skill levels of the Rhode Island workforce. Our state ranks near the bottom of the New England states in the percentage of adults who have at least a bachelor’s degree. Only Maine, with its fishing and bed-and-breakfast economy, ranks lower. Even worse, Rhode Island ranks last in New England (and below the national average) in the percentage of our workforce 25 years and older that has at least graduated from high school.

It is a sad fact that even with our state’s unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent, many very good jobs and careers are going begging.

Take our world-class health care institutions. Nurses at the Lifespan Hospital chain earn an average of  $82,000 a year. And the hospitals can’t find enough of them, says Brandon Melton, Lifespan’s senior vice-president of human services.

Lifespan recently conducted an assessment almost 500 job openings at its hospitals and found that only 7 percent of them required a high school degree or less.  The hospitals have more job openings for workers with master’s and doctorates than those with high school diplomas.

Health care isn’t the only industry that most Rhode Islanders aren’t qualified for. A fulcrum of  good jobs in our state has long been defense-related industries, whether building submarines or doing research on underwater defense systems. A recent report by Governor Chafee’s workforce board and defense industries paints a grim portrait. This industry sorely needs engineers among others with technical skills. It turns out that defense companies are having difficulty finding qualified engineers.

Rhode Island flourished in the 20th century with factory jobs. We had a solid middle-class economy. But those jobs are gone and they aren’t coming back. Our state seems to have a workforce and attitudes stuck in the warm bath of nostalgia for a time when even a high-school dropout could find a job and scale the factory ladder.

Our government needs to invest in education and training for 21 century jobs. But it is too easy to blame the politicians or businesses for not creating jobs. Some Rhode Islanders need to look in the mirror. If you or your kids don’t have the education needed for a good career in a modern economy, you need to stop blaming the government and get trained for the jobs of the future.

Economic change in capitalist economies has been happening since the spinning jenny put the weavers of Manchester, England in the streets. Too many in our state bring political agendas to job creation. If only we cut taxes for the wealthy or stop over regulating business, the jobs will come, say these folks.

Rhode Islanders need to embrace education and gaining the technical skills that are crucial for success in a new century.  This doesn’t mean everyone must go to a four-year college, but it does mean that we need to stop dropping out of high school at rates higher than our New England neighbors. If you don’t think education is important, try ignorance….and the unemployment line. Without educated workers, Rhode Island’s economy will continue to scrape New England’s bottom in the 21st Century.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mister Guy permalink
    March 8, 2012 10:43 pm

    “Take our world-class health care institutions. Nurses at the Lifespan Hospital chain earn an average of $82,000 a year. And the hospitals can’t find enough of them, says Brandon Melton, Lifespan’s senior vice-president of human services.”

    The lack of qualified nurses isn’t unique to RI by a long shot. RI basically doesn’t have a sustainable economy. We already spend too much on health care as a nation, so more health care industry jobs aren’t the answer.

    “A fulcrum of good jobs in our state has long been defense-related industries, whether building submarines or doing research on underwater defense systems. A recent report by Governor Chafee’s workforce board and defense industries paints a grim portrait. This industry sorely needs engineers among others with technical skills. It turns out that defense companies are having difficulty finding qualified engineers.”

    Good. We already spend way, way, way too much money on silly “defense” items (like unnecessary nuclear subs) as a nation. Again, more “defense” jobs isn’t going to save RI’s economy.

    “If only we cut taxes for the wealthy or stop over regulating business, the jobs will come, say these folks”

    …and we’ve already seen that the opposite happens when these kind of things are done. Case in point…the recent Great Recession, which was the biggest economic downturn in the USA since the Great Depression.

  2. Sean Daly permalink
    March 8, 2012 11:37 pm

    Amen, Scott.
    Rhode Islanders would do well to stick this column on every refrigerator hereabouts and to read and re-read it regularly.
    Bravo!

  3. tim1999 permalink
    March 9, 2012 1:37 pm

    That’s funny but I don’t recall Scotso MacKay being an advocate for genuine education reform (performance standards for teachers, no read-no write then no advancement for students), for charter schools and voucher programs which give parents educational options for their children, especially for those kids in the poor neighborhoods.You know, those kids that liberals like Scotso give lip service to and cry their faux tears over as they use them as political props.
    Yet Scotso laments our unskilled and uneducated workforce. Laughable!!

    Also don’t recall Scotso demanding reform of the welfare programs to slow the tide of baby momma’s who spit out fatherless children on the backs of a government check.
    Lots of money, time and resources are used in our educational system to deal with this population both.in the cities and in the burbs.
    Yet Scotso laments our unskilled and uneducated workforce. Laughable!!

    Can’t recall Scotso MacKay demanding we utilize the E-Verify system to chase away the illegal alien population in this state. The population that costs us hundreds of millions of dollars in education and health services.
    Yet Scotso laments our unskilled and uneducated workforce. Laughable!!

    No, all we get from Scott MacKay is the usual liberal talking points pablum.

    Scotso it’s very nice of you to say we need an educated workforce but you CAN’T address how to actually make that happen because the very politcal agendas you expouse are what stand in the way.

    You’re what we call a hypocrite.

    • Mister Guy permalink
      March 10, 2012 2:59 am

      “for charter schools and voucher programs which”

      …simply take money away from public education for basically no good reason. Let’s face the facts here…not everyone can be educated at a private school. There’s something like 4-5 times the number of public schools in the USA compared to private schools…the numbers are never going to work out.

      “demanding reform of the welfare programs to slow the tide of baby momma’s who spit out fatherless children on the backs of a government check.”

      Sheer & utter nonsense. Timmy & his kind are talking about the distant past of welfare at this point.

      “Lots of money, time and resources are used in our educational system to deal with this population both.in the cities and in the burbs.”

      If you look at student performance, many times its exceedingly apparent that students from lower income households achieve lower than other students. If one wants to get better student performance, then one should attack the problem of poverty in the USA, which is one of the richest countries on the planet.

      “demanding we utilize the E-Verify system to chase away the illegal alien population in this state. The population that costs us hundreds of millions of dollars in education and health services.”

      Again, sheer & utter nonsense. There are only around 30K or so people in RI without proper documentation, and there’s no way in hell that small of a population is costing RI a huge amount of money. These “facts” were debunked long ago at this point.

  4. March 9, 2012 1:50 pm

    No Scott, you’re putting the cart before the horse. The problem isn’t a lack of educated Rhode Islanders, the problem is keeping the educated Rhode Islanders in Rhode Island. Anyone who is educated knows that the grass is greener elsewhere with higher paying jobs and lower taxes. That is the problem. So when those people leave, it drops the statistics down. Everyone has the same people at the bottom end of the educational spectrum, but they’re able to keep those at the top. Rhode Island doesn’t. So educating more people won’t help, we’ll just be educating them for another state. We need to work on keeping the educated people in Rhode Island. (Not to be confused with keeping the rich people in Rhode Island, that’s two different arguments)

  5. March 9, 2012 7:05 pm

    Geez, I dunno, an $82,000 a year job as a nurse looks pretty good to many Rhode Islanders. This is actually a conservative column: I am urging people to look in the mirrror and get the skills they need to succeed in a new economy, rather than making the excuse that the government is not creating jobs. (As if government is so good at job creation.) Facts are stubborn things. This column is merely pointing out that there is opportunity and jobs for people who are qualified. Even in RI.

  6. March 12, 2012 9:18 pm

    You struck a nerve with this one Scott—good piece for sure.

    I remember whjen I returned to RI in 1975 after nine years away, and having completed graduate school, that not much changed on the education front. The 1970 Census showed that in RI more than half of the population over 45 years of age had not completed high school. One hoped then,in 1975, that young people would greatly improve that condition.Apparently not as we are still greatly behind for many skilled and educated areas of employment.

    Once in an open community meeting with Lifespan I suggested they start their own nursing school, they used to have one many years ago. Apparently they have not resurrected that “old” idea but there is now a charter school at the high school level, the RI Nursing Institute, that prepares youngsters for nursing vocations. And, of course, CCRI has a two-year nursing progrma and RIC and URI have baccalaureate programs. But RI is way behind in math/science career education leading to high tech occupations, other than the Alpert Medical School at Brown. There are good engineerig programs at URI and Brown but as we knoiw there are few local jobs atter graduation. But we have plenty of lawyers !!

    A poorly-educated popularion leads to unemployment or, as is the great tradition in Rhody, ” go work for the state” (or local governent) No wonder we are near bankruptcy. .

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