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Rob Horowitz: Rhode Island Must Upgrade Its Workforce

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


The good news is Rhode Island is emerging from the Great Recession; unemployment is beginning to head downward, private-sector job creation is stepping up a bit; and state government is on a more sound fiscal course. The bad news is that unless we upgrade the skills of our workforce we are never going to escape economic mediocrity and realize our true potential.

The average private sector worker in Rhode Island earns $43,526-- a wage 9 percent below the national average. Rhode Island ranks fourth out of the six New England states in average private sector wages, with our neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts who work in the private sector earning nearly 40 percent more on average.

Rhode Island’s lagging private sector wages are largely attributable to a workforce that is not competitive with its New England neighbors. For example, the state ranks last in New England in the percentage of residents age 25 and over who have graduated from high school and next to last in the overall percentage of residents who have college degrees. In Rhode Island, those with a college education earn on average $20,000 more annually than those with a high school education.
As education and technical skills become increasingly important this situation will only worsen. A recent RI Department of Labor and Training Report states “(a)s…the economy becomes more sophisticated better educated and higher skilled workers will have greater opportunities while the poorly educated, the unskilled and those unable to adapt to the demands of technological innovation will continue to face major obstacles as they seek to secure good paying jobs.” In a world economy, where capital is mobile, a skilled workforce will become even more essential to attracting and keeping new businesses.
As many of the dedicated people attempting to improve our workforce note, our current system for improvement is fragmented and under funded. A sustained and comprehensive policy response is required, including -- but not limited to -- stepped-up custom job training at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI); expanded adult literacy efforts; a stronger effort to connect college students with in-state employers through expanded internship programs; and increasing the affordability of public higher education. Building on some encouraging signs and dramatically improving K-12 public education in our state is another big key. Achieving substantial reductions in the high school drop-out rate must be part of this better performance.
As both the Governor and the General Assembly look to make economic development a high priority in 2013, it is critical that workforce improvement play a key role -- after all, our economic future depends on it.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

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