What RI Is Doing to Create Economic Opportunity

By February 20, 2017 No Comments

gina-raimondo-and-kids-at-computersI’m from Rhode Island – if I’m from anywhere that is. (My father was an academic … and the only people who move more than academics are military men and women.)

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Gina Raimondo (D) speak, the innovative and courageous governor of Rhode Island. Governor Raimondo is doing a number of innovative things both to keep talent in Rhode Island and to create talent capable of staffing 21st century jobs. Her goal is no less than to create new pathways into the middle class for Rhode Island’s citizens.

Keeping Talent in Rhode Island

Providence, RI is famously home to Brown University, RISD, Providence College, and Johnson & Wales, a leader in culinary studies. Many of the graduates of these institutions would like to stay in RI post graduation but traditionally have not been able to do so – due to a lack of industry and jobs. The number one industry in Rhode Island was jewelry manufacturing, a segment that has moved almost wholesale to China.

To encourage people who go to college in Rhode Island to make their homes there following graduation, the state is pioneering a program that targets STEAM graduates. Major in science, technology, arts, engineering, or math and take a STEAM job post graduate and the state will pick up a portion of your student loans. (Source: Providence Journal)

Nurturing Locally-Grown Talent

There are four (4) core programs around creating and nurturing locally-grown talent.

1. Computer science starting in grade K.
In Rhode Island, computer science is baked into the curriculum in every grade, starting as early as Kindergarten. The reason for this is obvious to Governor Raimondo. “Of the 5M jobs created last year in the United States does anyone want to guess how many of these jobs required no technical skills?” she asked. The answer turns out to be a measly 80,000 jobs or 2%. The vast majority of jobs require exposure to computers and ideally some knowledge of computer programming. (Source:

2. Skills-based training in high school.
The skills that are trained are those that the major employers in Rhode Island identify as necessary to get hired. To uncover these skills, Governor Raimondo met with CEOs and their VPs to identify the skills gap. Where there are jobs but not enough people with the requisite skills to fill those jobs. (Source: Real Jobs program)

3. 5-Year High School Program.
Another important way that Rhode Island is addressing the skills gap is through a five-year high school program sometimes called dual enrollment. Students who participate can graduate with not just a high-school diploma but also a 2-years associate degree. This is a pathway into jobs called variously “good jobs”, “middle skilled”, or “new collar” – depending on who is doing the talking. Regardless of what you call these jobs, there is agreement that these jobs are good paying and require considerable skill but not necessarily a 4-year college degree. (Source: HSCCRI partnership)

4. Last two years of college are paid for
Another experimental program championed by Governor Raimondo targets students graduating from RI high schools who do not necessarily have the means to go to college. RI does not (yet) provide a full ride to community college, a program recently pioneered by the State of New York. What RI does do is pick up the last two years at a 4-year college for students who meet specific eligibility requirements This addresses the fact that many students start 4-year programs but drop out after 2 years. (Source: CNN – Rhode Island Free Tuition)

Is Rhode Island a “Maker State”

In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.

Yes, in that these programs are innovative and help prepare citizens for the future of work, one where some degree of technical skills are required.

No, in that the word “maker” never really came up, which we think is too bad. The reason we like to introduce the word “Maker” into the conversation is because it underlines something important: good-paying jobs require technology skills but are not limited to the technology sector.

Some have mischaracterized what is happening in Rhode Island as a focus on technology, to turn RI into some kind of pint-sized Silicon Valley. In fact, the programs that Governor Raimondo is enacting aren’t about preparing citizens to assume jobs in technology but to up their technical skills, the kind of technical skills that many industries need. Prototyping. Problem solving. Exposure to the modern tools of production including CNC tooling, robotics, electronics. A subtle difference but one that we think is important.

Time and time again we hear from Mayors and Economic Development officers that they tried to kickstart job development by replicating the success of Silicon Valley. Only to fail in the process.

We (strongly) believe that the path forward towards job creation lies in doubling down on those industries that are authentic to the local economy and encouraging a local ecosystem to flourish around those industries. In other words, instead of trying to recreate the success of Silicon Valley, recognize that practical STEM skills and computer science are required for all “good jobs” not just those few created in the technology sector.

What the Maker Movement brings to the table

A focus on STEAM alone is not going to get the next generation of workers trained up for 21st century jobs. Partially this is because cities like Providence and Pawtucket, RI which used to be manufacturing centers are not feeling optimistic about the future.

The Maker ethos is all about exposing young people to the idea that they have agency, can make important things with their hands, and can utilize their STEAM education to build robots and drones, and/or other things that capture their imagination. The Maker movement connects what they are learning in school around science and technology to … well … fun. And children learn better and feel more optimistic about their futures when fun is added to the equation.

A second thing that Making brings to this discussion is the notion that most 21st century jobs that are good paying will require the ability to apply technology and computer science.

21st century jobs break down into two buckets here. Bucket #1 are coding and programming jobs. For the most part, these jobs require a 4-year degree although a few companies – like IBM – believe strongly that young people with the right acumen can be found in high school and trained up through community colleges. One of the key things the IBM folks we spoke to mentioned that the folks who excel in these roles are deep into gaming and also like to tinker with machines and building things. IBM tends to call these folks “new collar” but we prefer the term “Maker”.

The second type of “good jobs” are in industries that are not about technology per se but where technology is an input, to reduce costs and increase competitive advantage. Virtually every industry – from automobiles to waste management (sorry there were no industries that started with a “Z”; believe me, we looked) rely on technology. Workers with technology skills, the ability to problem solve, build prototypes, and create testing scenarios are badly needed. These aren’t assembly line jobs which can be easily replaced by robots. These are good paying jobs that require technical know how and the Maker can-do ethos; what they don’t necessarily require is a 4-year college degree.