Publick Occurrences forum addresses jobs/skills issues in R.I.  

Among the forum panelists were Tim Hebert, left, CEO of Atrion Networking Corp., George Nee, president of the AFL-CIO in Rhode Island, and Mary Sullivan, director of the STEM Center at RIC.

Job-training efforts in Rhode Island, the programs offered and the people who run them, are generally doing what is needed to eliminate the skills gap and to connect the unemployed with work.

However, the problem is, there just isn’t enough being done due to a lack of leadership and resources.

That was the general consensus reached on Oct. 10 at the second of three Publick Occurrences forums on the economy – “Jobs vs. Skills: The perpetual mismatch in Rhode Island” – sponsored by Rhode Island College, the Providence Journal and Leadership Rhode Island. Some 200 people attended the event, held in the Nazarian Center's Sapinsley Hall on campus.

In panel discussions, nine experts representing such sectors as education, labor, nonprofits and the private sector, offered insights, opinions and suggestions on the gap between the skills needed for available jobs and the skills workers actually have.

Welcoming the gathering were Mike Ritz, executive director of Leadership Rhode Island, and Jenifer Giroux, interim associate vice president of RIC. Karen Bordeleau, Journal interim executive editor, moderated.

Experts cited specific cases to show the success of ongoing job-training efforts in Rhode Island. Raymond DiPasquale, commissioner of higher education and president of Community College of Rhode Island, pointed to the work done by the Governor’s Workforce Board and said most graduates of RIC, CCRI and the University of Rhode Island “do find jobs.” The skills gap, DiPasquale suggested, is mostly at “the highest skilled occupation levels.”

Steve Kitchin, vice president of corporate training at New England Institute of Technology, also defended the current system. He said schools such as NEIT do teach out to employers and do craft programs based on their recommendations.

Perhaps the most compelling success story came from Richard Nischo, a  former displaced worker and graduate of the RIC Outreach program. In 2009, just days away from his 59th birthday, Nischo told the forum, the Woonsocket compression-molding factory he worked for moved to China, leaving him and 300 colleagues out of jobs.

He went two years and 10 months without a job, “following every lead I could” and sending out “hundreds of resumes,” he said. To bolster his strong manufacturing background, Nischo earned a certificate in bookkeeping/accounting from RIC Outreach. That financial knowledge gave him an edge in job interviews, he said, and led in part to the job he now holds at an industrial lighting company in North Kingstown.

The second Publick Occurrences forum drew about 200 people to the Nazarian Center's Sapinsley Hall on Oct. 10.

The success stories were underscored, however, by discussion of how much is needed to help nearly-60,000 unemployed Rhode Islanders find good-paying, full-time jobs. George H. Nee, ’90, president of the AFL-CIO in Rhode Island and a member of the Governor’s Workforce Board, was among several experts to point to a funding gap. “The state of Rhode Island spends very little in general revenue dollars on job training,” he said.

The state receives $77 million annually from the federal government for mostly restricted and targeted uses, and spends another $12 million a year from a fund paid for by Rhode Island employers. But of this $12 million, only $10 million is devoted to job-training, according to Nee and others at the forum.

‘Somebody has to step up and become a champion of job-training in Rhode Island,” Nee said. “We know how to do it. We don’t have the resources and we have not made it a priority.”

Mary Sullivan, director of the STEM Center at RIC, spoke of a “critical shortage” of teachers in STEM subjects and, she said, “we need more educators with business experience, hands-on experience in business.” Knowledge of business and how it works, Sullivan said, can contribute to the career-readiness of students.

Also taking part in the forum were David Abbott, acting commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education; Tim Hebert, CEO, Atrion Networking Corp.; Rick Brooks, executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Board; and Carol Holmquist, president and CEO of Dorcas Place.

The next forum is Monday, Oct. 22, on “Rhode Island’s Economy: How do we fix it?” at 6 p.m. in Sapinsley Hall.