Successes, challenges mark first year of Real Jobs RI training program

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Nearly 1,200 people have signed up to participate in the Real Jobs RI program so far, but a little less than half of those people advanced to a new position.

Gov. Gina Raimondo launched the new training initiative in 2015 in an effort to try and close what’s known as the “skills gap,” a void that’s left when there are more jobs open than qualified workers to fill them.

Real Jobs RI provides grants to local companies struggling to fill open positions using a combination of state and federal funds. According to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, the state has spent nearly $5 million so far, and the federal government has chipped in an additional $1 million.

One industry that has used Real Jobs RI is the defense sector. In 2015, the industry was growing, securing nearly $3 billion in defense contracts over a four-year period. But its work force wasn’t keeping up – especially in the cybersecurity sector.

“They were struggling, so it was great when Real Jobs RI came out,” said Molly Donohue Magee, executive director of the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, or SENEDIA, which represents more than 100 companies.

She said a Real Jobs RI grant of more than $200,000 allowed industry leaders to establish a partnership with area colleges, implement a rapid certification course, and launch an internship program.

“It has been very successful,” Donohue Magee said. “The internship helps meet, and the rapid training helps meet, our immediate need; the other pieces of this help us build the pipeline so we can ensure that there are workers for the future.”

Andrew Enos was an intern at McLaughlin Research Corporation, and now he’s an employee there. He works part-time while finishing his senior year at Roger Williams University.

“It’s really been a game-changer for me,” Enos said. “It would have been much more stressful trying to find a job this close to graduation if I didn’t have that internship opportunity, or somebody saying ‘hey we will help you out,’ then I’d almost be lost trying to figure out my next steps after graduation.”

Real Jobs RI participants who complete the program, as Enos did, have had more success. As of February, 56% of participants have secured a new job.

Another 272 participants are still in training, but 151 of them never completed the program. The state estimates that it’s spending $4,188 per individual.

When asked if that money is really helping fill the skills gap, Raimondo said it’s important to look at the bigger picture.

“I mean if we’re going to spend a few thousand dollars in order to help somebody get a job where they might be making $30 or $40 or $50,000 dollars a year – that’s a great investment,” Raimondo said.

The governor’s office also says that the program’s 56% new job employment rate is higher than a similar program run by the U.S. Department of Labor, which averaged a 51% employment rate in 2014.

“You have a lot of people who lost their jobs and they’re out of work – and by the way that’s not free to the state either – they collect unemployment insurance, they might need social services, not to mention the fact that their lives aren’t the way they want them to be,” she added.

Donohue Magee said SENEDIA filled 27 positions, but there are more to fill. She admits it’s been a slow process.

“We wanted to make sure we did this program right, so we scaled it,” Donohue Magee said.

SENEDIA plans to continue working with the Real Jobs RI program and has set a goal of adding 15 cybersecurity interns next year, she said.

Raimondo calls skills gap ‘frustrating’

Another industry that sought and was awarded grants from Real Jobs RI is aquaculture.

In 2015, Eyewitness News reported that the aquaculture business was booming. At the time, it had experienced a 30% increase in production over a 15-year period, and there were a total of 55 oyster farms in the state.

Shellfish Environmental Services, along with Behan Family Farms and a number of other employers, received a $19,681 planning grant through Real Jobs RI to grow and train their workforce.

The money was used to develop an aquaculture training partnership that educated participants about the business – from farm to table.

Charlestown’s Behan Family Farms worked with the group, teaching participants how to farm oysters.

But they weren’t able to turn any of those trainees into employees. Matt Behan tells Eyewitness News that the company didn’t have the money to hire any of the trainees who completed the program.

However, he does plan on hiring someone this year as he continues to expand his business.

The aquaculture training partnership has put together a proposal for another grant this year – expanding to the hospitality sector – in order to provide catering and restaurant employers staff with training in oyster and shellfish preparation and even wine pairings.

“It’s frustrating for me,” Raimondo said. “Almost every day I talk to companies that say they’re hiring – they have jobs available, they can’t find somebody with the skills they need – that drives me crazy because I meet people who need a job and I meet companies who want to hire people, and this program is about matching them up and we just have to do more of it.”

Raimondo admits that the state won’t be able to close the skills gap overnight, but argued they’ve made notable progress in the program’s first year.

“What we have learned has been very successful is we work very closely with employers and we’re collaborating very closely with employers,” Raimondo said. “You got to tell us – well what does that person have to be able to do in order for you to give them a job.”

Solicitations for the next round of Real Jobs RI planning grants are due March 9. Click here for more information.