Minding the Skills Gap
How is Rhode Island connecting workers to jobs?
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Dan Sullivan was working remotely from Providence for a Utah-based company last year when he and a group of coworkers got laid off by a new CEO. It was nine days before Christmas and a decade since the Cranston native had dusted off his resume.
Sullivan was always into technology growing up; he was the kid everyone in the neighborhood called when they couldn’t figure out how to get their printer to work. He used his skills early, studying computers at the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center starting in tenth grade.
A few years after college, Sullivan was hired by a computer consulting firm where he performed help desk services remotely for clients. But when Sullivan lost his job, his colleagues were on the other side of the country — not people he could call on for leads on local positions.
With his tech skills and experience, though, friends and family didn’t think he’d be unemployed for long.
“Everyone was like, well, you’re a computer guy. You can get so many jobs,” says Sullivan, who is thirty-seven. “But the problem with IT and computers is that a lot of it is very pigeon-holed.”
During the five months Sullivan was unemployed, he applied to ninety-five jobs: help desk positions, server administration roles, information technologist jobs at nearby colleges. He kept track of them in an Excel spreadsheet, but after eighty-eight applications, he stopped counting.
Like Sullivan, many Rhode Islanders want good jobs that pay well. While the unemployment rate has improved significantly, as of June, more than 30,000 Rhode Islanders didn’t have jobs and were actively trying to find work, according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT). In April and May, nearly 4,000 jobs in the state disappeared, though 1,700 were added in June.
At the same time, some Rhode Island employers say they can’t find qualified workers to fill their jobs. The much-discussed divide is known as the skills gap, and in a global economy, it’s an international concern.
“Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him,” President Barack Obama has said.
More than $21 million in federal grants have been awarded in Rhode Island since 2014 for training in IT, to work for Electric Boat, or for apprenticeships, according to Chip Unruh, spokesman for U.S. Senator Jack Reed. An additional $12.6 million in 2016 supports the state’s workforce plan. Employers, unions, schools, universities and community organizations have helped workers develop more in-demand expertise, including Farm Fresh Rhode Island, which is training teens who have been involved in juvenile corrections.
Still, depending on who you speak to, the skills gap in Rhode Island ranges as wide as Brown University having a hard time filling a senior web developer position to people who want jobs but didn’t graduate from high school or don’t speak English.
Generally, there are no quick solutions. Computer skills and science haven’t been uniformly emphasized and the state continues to struggle with a large high school dropout rate and lack of literacy.
“We need to do better,” says Linda Katz, policy director of the Economic Progress Institute. “I call it turning off the spigot. We have 80,000 Rhode Islanders without a high school diploma and 35,000 who don’t speak English well. We need to drain that bathtub by ensuring that every kid graduates from our K through twelve system and is ready for a career or college. And there’s a lot of work to do in those areas.”
The percentage of jobs in Rhode Island filled by people commuting from Massachusetts and Connecticut has “increased significantly” since 2001, mostly for jobs that require college degrees, notes Mary A. Burke, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, in a recent paper. More than 80 percent come from Massachusetts, a majority of them from Bristol County.
“This evidence agrees with some Rhode Island employers’ claims that they have trouble filling skilled jobs with Rhode Island resident workers,” Burke writes. Meanwhile, some Rhode Islanders commute out of state for better work opportunities.
The fact that less than 45 percent of Rhode Islanders have training or schooling past high school is what Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo says keeps her up at night.
“The vast majority of good, middle-class jobs require some schooling or credentials past high school,” Raimondo says. That’s why she says her focus is on attacking the skills gap at all levels.
Her commitment to building a pipeline of talent is a major part of the reason General Electric decided to open an information technology center in Rhode Island in June, with the promise of at least 100 high-skilled positions, she says.
“General Electric said to me, we want to grow in Rhode Island over the next twenty years,” Raimondo says. “So what are you doing now so we can feel good that twenty years from now, we can get talent? And I say, we’re starting computer science in kindergarten.”
Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of people between thirty and sixty-two might have some college and work experience, but currently don’t have jobs. “They’ve been looking for a long time, but they’re young, they have to keep working,” she says. “The only way those people are going to get jobs is if we get them skills.”
According to the most recent numbers from the DLT, which are from 2015, 20,000 men were unemployed in Rhode Island, along with about 13,000 women. African-Americans didn’t have jobs at a rate of 12 percent, while it was 9.1 percent for Latinos and 4.9 percent for whites.
The demographics of Rhode Island’s labor force have also shifted. From 2005 to 2015, the portion of Latinos grew by 38 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, the percentage of whites working decreased by 5.3 percent, while the representation of black people in the labor force remained about the same.
Workforce development isn’t new in Rhode Island, but Raimondo says that by building training programs that correspond to employer needs, instead of what she calls the “train and pray” model of the past, the skills development is based on anticipated jobs.
Critics have questioned the taxpayer dollars that are being spent.
“Instead of working to eliminate burdens on our jobs climate that scare potential companies away, they have decided to use your money to pay new ones to come and existing companies to remain,” Republican State Representative Patricia Morgan of West Warwick wrote in an opinion piece published in the Providence Journal.
And while some programs have already yielded some jobs, it’s not clear how many of Rhode Island’s unemployed can benefit from initiatives to teach people new skills.
“If I was just a person living in the state and I said, ‘Gee, what kind of training program could I get into?’ I’m not even sure where I would start,” says Jill Holloway, director of the Rhode Island Adult Education Professional Development Center in Warwick. “In general, there’s not a very good system for: how do you find the opportunities?”
Almost every day, Raimondo says she hears from employers across industries — health care, marine companies, IT, manufacturing — that their number-one concern is the inability to find employees with the skills they need.
“Many employers, especially those in advanced manufacturing, tell me all they need is people with a high school diploma and basic skills,” she says. “But what they tell me, which is very concerning to me, is that people are coming to them with a high school degree who can’t do fractions, who can’t do basic math, who can’t do basic problem solving.”
“Then at the other end, you hear from all kinds of employers who need people with computer skills, broadly defined,” Raimondo continues. “Information technology, application development, software: just basic computer skills. It’s what everybody wants.”
A recent report called “Enter IT RI” echoed the demand for tech skills in the state. In June, tech employers and educators gathered at Tech Collective, the trade association representing IT and bioscience, to talk about the findings.
Joe Devine, a partner at North Kingstown-based staffing firm Bridge Technical Talent, says he started working with tech companies in Rhode Island about five or six years ago after he found out some startups had a hard time finding employees with the skills they needed. Some moved to Boston to find qualified workers.
To see what he could do to encourage more students to pursue degrees in computer science or computer information systems, Devine reached out to seven universities in the state that had programs: University of Rhode Island (URI), Rhode Island College (RIC), Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), Johnson and Wales University, Roger Williams University, New England Institute of Technology and Bryant University.
He expected to learn that the universities didn’t have enough money, space or computers. But what he heard was that they had plenty of teaching space and computers. They just needed more students.
“We have roughly half capacity,” Devine says. “That was pretty exciting, but also kind of discouraging,” because he wondered why they couldn’t get more students interested in computer science.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Rhode Island employers are having a hard time finding IT workers. The tech positions that have the biggest gap between open jobs and people claiming unemployment benefits are: computer programmers (30.3 postings per claimant); computer systems analysts (23.9 postings per claimant); followed by information security analysts and database administrators, according to the report.
With the demand, one might think the first thing companies would be looking for when hiring would be tech skills.
But 89 percent of employers who participated in the survey named problem solving and critical thinking as the top skills they’re looking for, followed by 73 percent who cited teamwork and the ability to communicate with coworkers as most important when they consider bringing on new employees.
During a related panel discussion led by WPRO reporter Steve Klamkin, employers echoed the concern, while educators spoke about what they’re doing to address it.
Chris Shoemaker, the chief technology officer of MojoTech, a software development consultancy with offices in Providence, New York, Colorado and Washington D.C., says lack of critical thinking is a key deficiency he sees in hiring.
“And that’s not only at the entry level, it’s at the mid-level,” Shoemaker says. “I interview folks with five years’ experience that still can’t think clearly. In IT especially, and in our business, software development, it’s absolutely critical.”
Lincoln-based Amica Mutual Insurance’s chief information officer, Peter Moreau, adds that problem solving and related skills are important, but “communication skills are critical, because developers are working side-by-side with a businessperson who doesn’t understand [the language of] technology.”
Critical thinking comes into play when a client is asking for a number of requirements, some of which contradict each other: for example, a computer system that works fast, but doesn’t cost a lot of money, says Anthony Ruocco, the computer science program coordinator at Roger Williams University. It involves figuring out how to balance a solution with the client’s needs.
“One of the things we teach our students is you have to be brave enough to tell the client, ‘This won’t work.’ But you don’t want to say, ‘This won’t work,’ ” Ruocco says. “You want to say, ‘This won’t work, but this will.’ ”
The lack of critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills isn’t new, says Joan Peckham, chair of the computer science and statistics department at URI. A survey of employers a decade ago found similar soft skills gaps. Based on those results, URI has required writing, communications and social science in computing courses for computer science majors for some time.
But Peckham adds that teaching critical thinking skills has to be a community effort. “This isn’t something the universities can do by themselves,” she says. “These skills need to be trained in K through twelve.”
Peckham has met with thirty kindergarten through twelfth-grade schools about introducing computer science courses to teachers and both Roger Williams University and URI are encouraging education majors to take computer science classes. Both universities also have computer science minors that are helping to widen the field of graduates with tech skills.
For Dan Sullivan, finding that new job was likely a combination of working on his soft skills, getting some new tech training and that companies were ready to hire.
Soon after he was laid off, Sullivan found out about Tech Force RI through his unemployment counselor. The federally funded program is designed for people who are unemployed or underemployed, many of whom already have some professional IT experience.
By that point, Sullivan’s job search had resulted in only two interviews. He was whisked in for an initial assessment, where he was screened based on the program’s five criteria: tech education, IT experience, critical thinking, an interview and whether he had transferrable skills. Within a week, Sullivan was approved to come in for a workforce assessment.
Prior to that, he says he approached his job search like a computer guy, not an HR person. “They helped me use better action words on my resume,” Sullivan says. “After a few rounds of resume and cover letter tweaks, I started getting more interviews.”
Sullivan worked out an employment plan with job developer Ian McGarty and decided to pursue an additional certificate that might let him eventually move from a straight help desk role into management. He thought that would appeal to FM Global, the international insurance company with an office in Johnston, where by then, he had gotten an interview through a recruiter.
By the time Sullivan completed his one-week certificate training and passed his exam, he was getting called in for multiple interviews. Ultimately, he found himself weighing two job offers.
“There were four months of nothing, and then everything came at once,” Sullivan says. On May 16, Sullivan started his first day at FM Global, working in a contract position with the computer service desk.
Asked whether he thinks there’s a skills gap in Rhode Island, Sullivan says that before his offer from FM Global, he turned down interviews because of what companies were paying.
“When one of the biggest employers in the state called to interview me and they only offered $13 an hour, I had to turn down that interview,” he says. “They might turn to the governor and say there’s a skills deficit. There isn’t a skills deficit. You’re not willing to pay what the skills demand, salary-wise.
“Yeah, you can find a ton of computer programmers, but when you’re trying to pay them forty grand a year and they can drive to Boston and make ninety grand a year doing the same thing, it’s not a skills deficit problem,” he adds.