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By Rebecca Keister and Richard Asinof
WARWICK – In a frank discussion of the education and skills gap facing Rhode Island’s workforce, participants in the Providence Business News Employers & Education Summit laid out competing visions of the road to success.
The participants on the panel, “Mid-Skill Jobs: What Employers Need/What Students are Learning,” were in basic agreement on what the challenges were – the large number of young Rhode Islanders who were ill-equipped in basic math and reading skills, the lack of core “soft” skills needed to succeed in the workplace, and the lack of financial resources and support for students trying to better themselves.
Their disagreements – often very stark – centered on what the solutions should be. The challenge, according to Ray Di Pasquale, president of Community College of Rhode Island as well as the state Commissioner of Higher Education, is to stop just talking about the issues and take action. “We need to develop an action plan, rather than a talking plan.”
Di Pasquale painted a dismal picture of the skills gap in education: 70 percent of CCRI’s students need at least one remedial class, 50 percent need two remedial classes and 10 percent need three remedial classes. As a result, only 10 percent of CCRI students graduate with an associate’s degree in three years. “The graduation rate is deplorable,” he said, saying that the community college’s goal is to help improve the skill set of students. “It isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but it is going to happen.”
One of the biggest problems, Di Pasquale said, has been the $40 million cut by the state in public higher education funding.
Andrea Castaneda, who oversees middle and high school reform, career and technical training education and virtual learning for the R.I. Department of Education, argued that it was not productive to pass the problem back and forth between K-12 and higher education; both needed to be held more accountable for results.
She said it was important to stress math skills, such as long division, and push students and teachers to improve performance. Castaneda said her department has just revamped the state’s career and technical training education to be focused on information technology.
Brandon Melton, senior vice president at Lifespan, the state’s largest private employer, said that in the last year, the hospital had received 185,000 applications for some 1,800 jobs, and only a very small percentage are available to those who only have a high school education. As a result, Melton continued, Lifespan has invested in initiatives such as a summer internship program for young people in Rhode Island’s urban communities to build a pathway to employment. The program emphasizes building the social skills needed to succeed in the workplace as well as building a support system for training.
The opinions of those attending the summit were varied and plentiful. Dennis Littky, co-founder of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (also known as the Met School), said that the emphasis needed to be placed on enabling students to unlock their passion and creativity, not on improving test scores. Littky talked about the importance of creating internships for students at businesses where a sense of entrepreneurship should be rewarded.
Steve Adams, a partner at Taylor Duane Barton & Gilman LLP, refocused the conversation on the importance of the quality he called “grit” – the ability to overcome obstacles and succeed.
Pierre La Perriere, senior vice president at Gilbane Inc., spoke of the importance of internships in retaining mechanical engineers at his company.