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Rhode Island’s Back to Work program focuses reskilling workers through partnerships with local industries for in-demand jobs.
When domestic and international travel ground to a halt at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, so too did Erica Hanley’s job as a business development representative for a travel company.
The 37-year-old was laid off last May, and she began searching for a job in an industry that wasn’t decimated by the pandemic. But competition was fierce.
“Unfortunately, I was fighting a lot of other people,” said Hanley, of Coventry, Rhode Island. “I got a lot of interviews, but nothing came into fruition.”
A year later, however, Hanley is gainfully employed in a different industry: working as a mortgage data processor for a local bank. She was trained for the job through Rhode Island’s Back to Work program, a public-private partnership that was launched during the pandemic to help out-of-work residents reskill and find jobs in other industries.
Approximately 9.8 million Americans remain out of work, and the unemployment rate —6.1%—remains close to double what it was a month before the pandemic swept the country, according to U.S. government data.
Jobs in some industries may never return. An estimated 17 million workers may need to transition to new jobs post pandemic, according to a report from McKinsey Global Institute.
For many of those workers, experts say reskilling will be critical to their success.
President Biden’s jobs plan calls for billions of dollars of investment in the nation’s infrastructure. But to get the job done, the U.S. needs a workforce trained in the type of skills that are needed, said Ron Painter, president and CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards. Short-term and long-term workforce development and skill building can all play a role, he said.
The rate of job growth and rehiring over the next few months as businesses fully reopen and unemployment benefits run out will help clarify the extent of what types of programs are needed, said Artem Gulish, a senior policy strategist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“We do see that workers may need some kind of training to get back into the labor market,” he said.
White House Focus on Reskilling
In July, when then-Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Rhode Island's $45 million program, she said job training would help ensure that residents could succeed in the new economy. The program would prioritize residents who were receiving unemployment benefits and who were from traditionally underserved communities, Raimondo said. More than 10 companies pledged to “open opportunities” to those who completed the program.
Now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Raimondo is pushing for the expansion of similar initiatives nationwide as part of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
Earlier this month, Raimondo extolled the value of a shipbuilding apprenticeship program in Connecticut.
"Investing in our workforce is critical to give Americans a shot and improve American competitiveness," Raimondo said as she toured General Dynamics’ Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. “A lot of Americans continue to struggle after the pandemic and millions of Americans are still without work. Apprenticeships are going to be a key in helping us dig out.”
About 52% of U.S. jobs require skills training that goes beyond a high school diploma but does not require a four-year college degree, according to the National Skills Coalition.
Biden’s jobs plan calls on Congress to invest $48 billion in “workforce development infrastructure and worker protection”—spending that would include funding to create between 1 and 2 million new registered apprenticeship slots. A separate Biden proposal, the American Families Plan, also calls for free tuition at two-year community colleges
For the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget, the Biden administration has proposed increasing the amount of money allotted for registered apprenticeships by $100 million for a total of $285 million.
A Three-Step Plan
The unemployment rate in Rhode Island hit 17% in April 2020 and remained above 10% through October.
To address the needs of the state’s unemployed residents, Rhode Island officials said the Back to Work program was developed with three unique components. That included a centralized job search website, a virtual career center that job seekers can use to talk with employment coaches, and a retraining center that helps residents obtain new skills.
The Back to Work job search board was developed to personalize the search process, said Sarah Blusiewicz, the assistant director of workforce development at the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster and we wanted to give people a really easy, user-friendly search,” she said.
The Back to Work program sought to improve the job search function through use of artificial intelligence as part of its virtual career center. The career center provides job seekers a way to meet virtually with career coaches or get help retooling their resumes. But an artificial intelligence powered-chatbot solicits information from job seekers about their experience and skills and then recommends jobs that others with similar backgrounds have successfully transitioned to, Blusiewicz said.
“With all the information on the internet and about career profiles, we asked how can we take information about you and information about what we know is out there and present you with some really good starting options?” she said.
The final component of the Back to Work program is reskilling and retraining.
Through the program, Hanley enrolled in a 14-week course offered through the Community College of Rhode Island to learn the basics of the mortgage industry. The Back to Work program covered the cost of classes and offered her a $1,000 stipend for completion of the program. While she was unemployed, she relied on unemployment benefits.
The mortgage industry wasn’t a field Hanley would have previously considered. But after she initially signed up for Rhode Island’s Back to Work program to access its job board, she started getting emails about training available for other industries and the mortgage processor job description caught her eye.
“If the pandemic didn’t happen, I’d still be in travel and sales,” she said.
While she will miss some of the perks associated with her old job, like traveling for work and sales commissions, Hanley said the jobs program opened up a new world for her and she’s looking forward to taking additional classes to advance in her career.
Hanley is one of more than 2,500 people who have either been hired or taken upskilling courses, and another 4,500 people are enrolled in some type of training through the program, Blusiewicz said. Other industries the program works closely with include commercial fisheries, health- care-oriented call centers, welding and manufacturing.
As of April, the state’s unemployment rate had dropped to 7.1%.
Successful job training or reskilling programs rely on collaboration with businesses and community colleges or technical schools, Gulish said. The partnerships create a pipeline, enabling workforce development programs to quickly assess labor market needs, identify skills gaps, and find educators to train workers to meet those needs.
Also critical to the success of a program is flexibility and creativity, Blusiewicz said. Governments may be tempted to create a template that they think workforce development plans should follow. But allowing industry partners to pitch ideas can lead to programs that better align with the needs and capacity of local businesses, she said.
“Invest heavily but invest in solutions that work for your region and don’t try to legislate bureaucratic solutions,” Blusiewicz said.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.
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