RI needs an educated workforce
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.