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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 May 3 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Small State, Big Challenges

Rhode Island is the nation’s smallest state, but it has some monumental problems.

Once replete with manufacturing jobs, the state’s unemployment rate is now near 13 percent, second-highest in the nation, ranking behind only Michigan. That means about 73,000 people are out of work.

About 15,000 people in the state between age 18 and 24 lack a high school credential. The state is facing a $400 million budget deficit, or 13 percent of its general fund budget.

According to projections, over the next 25 years, the state will see a 52 percent increase in its elderly population, while the under-65 population will increase by only 1 percent.

Against this grim backdrop, Rhode Island is turning to its community college to play a central role in reviving the state’s sagging economic fortunes.

The Community College of Rhode Island’s 21st Century Workforce Commission recently issued a report which urges that the college be transformed into a prime resource to educate workers for high wage jobs in the new knowledge economy.

The product of a year’s work by a commission made up of public officials and representatives from the private sector — and guided by the non-profit Workforce Strategy Center — the report notes that CCRI already plays a crucial role in workforce development in the state, but must redirect its efforts and do more.

In some ways, the challenges confronting CCRI typify those facing community colleges across the country, said Julian L. Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center. Once a feeder system for baccalaureate degree institutions, community colleges now must be a bulwark of workforce development, he said.

Changing Directions

Community colleges like CCRI are struggling to change direction, phasing out programs that no longer are relevant and adding technical and workforce training programs that employers say they want and the global economy demands.

“In Rhode Island and elsewhere, the community college was seen primarily as a transfer institution, a place to prepare students to transfer to a four-year college,” he said. “But for CCRI to realize its full potential, it has to form strategic partnerships with the state’s employers” especially in key industries like information technology, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, allied health fields and hospitality and tourism.

The report said the state is facing a huge gap between the outcomes of its current educational system and the challenges of the future. Rhode Island ranks 32nd in the percentage of associate degrees and postsecondary vocational certificates earned in technological areas.

“Nearly one-third of new jobs in Rhode Island over the next five years will require an associate degree,” the report said. “More than half of these jobs will require additional on-the-job training. With the state’s rapidly aging workforce, and the changing demands of existing and emerging industries driven by technology, the situation only stands to get worse. Never before has workforce development been so central to the future of the state’s economy. And the pressure has never been greater on the state’s postsecondary education institutions
to prepare students to compete in this 21st Century economy.”

It continued: “To meet these demands, CCRI must increase enrollments in new areas of study, graduate more students with certificates and degrees in areas of industry demand, and offer more opportunities for students to gain work experience. It must also address the repeated call from employers for entry-level workers with soft skills. These include communicating in a professional manner and providing customer service.”

With four campuses across the state, CCRI currently enrolls more than 17,000 students a year in degree programs and another 35,000 in non-credit training programs. Last year, about 1,200 students received associate degrees at CCRI, but just a handful were in the technical fields that are in increasing demand in the 21st-century economy.

Educational Gaps

The report said 547 students graduated with degrees preparing them for health-care employment last year — including 350 students who earned nursing degrees. Only 50 students received credentials in engineering and technology fields like computer networking, waste water management and construction management.

Last year, about 70 percent of all CCRI students required at least one remedial course, and more than 50 percent required two or more. CCRI has a graduation rate of 10 percent, and college officials report that classrooms are filled to capacity with hundreds of students on waiting lists for the most popular healthcare education programs.

Those educational gaps are having harsh real-world effects, the report said.

“Countless Rhode Islanders, their jobs eliminated after years of service, have seen their hard-earned rewards disappear with the inability to pay for their children’s college tuition, threatened home foreclosures, and a slender existence eked out of unemployment benefits,” the report said. “Faced with 21st Century work requirements, their knowledge and skills more often than not fail them. Those who seek out publicly assisted job training are in fierce competition for too few jobs; employment usually results in harsh adjustments to drastically reduced wages.”

Gov. Donald Carcieri said CCRI faces an imperative to hone its mission.

“The findings contained in the report will guide CCRI toward a more industry-focused role in the workforce development system, while enhancing career pathways for students,” Carcieri said in a prepared statement.

Despite its challenges, CCRI is well-positioned to create the career pathways that are essential to building a thriving economy, the report said. The college offers 18 technical degrees and more than 100 courses in various technologies and technical skill areas such as computer, mechanical, electrical and manufacturing technologies. Last year, CCRI introduced four new credit courses in renewable energy and increased the number of online courses by 39 percent.

The report outlined four broad recommendations, based on the best practices of community colleges across the nation that have become workforce development drivers, The state should:

  • Enact legislation to create a statewide career pathways system that is driven by industry needs.
  • Strengthen CCRI’s capacity to raise the knowledge and skill levels in a greater share of the state’s population.
  • Encourage a culture of innovation and responsiveness at CCRI to meet the workforce development needs of students and business.
  • Fully fund the recommendations of the CCRI Commission.

The report also stresses that CCRI can’t be expected to lift the state’s economy on its own. It needs help across the political, public and private sectors, Alssid said.

“The leaders in the state have come together around a unified plan, and that’s essential,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts, and they have to come together in a way that makes sense. What is needed is much closer working relationships between employers and the colleges.”

Looming in the background, as always, is the challenge of financial resources. Tax coffers have been depleted by the recession, and CCRI is being squeezed between increasing demands and shrinking resources.

Throughout the report, the commission repeatedly noted the school’s “scarce resources” and said that CCRI must be “funded to capacity.”

That’s not the case now. The report found that in 2009, the college absorbed a $7 million cut in its $130 million operating budget. As a result, the college is operating with 723 full-time employees instead of its authorized level of 835 employees.

Resources Essential

At a press conference announcing the report’s findings, CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale said more resources are essential.

“It’s about money, it’s about resources. There are lots of things we need to do,” Di Pasquale said, according to the Providence Journal. “We all know we are stretched. For me to tell you we will do all this without added staff and resources — we can’t.”

The report concluded that CCRI has little choice but to act quickly to transform itself.

“It is clear that workforce development is a priority for the state of Rhode Island, those seeking employment, and for workers and employers throughout the state,” the report said. “But it appears less evident that those most likely to benefit from its long term potential realize how critical it is that a substantial investment be made early — now — if we are truly committed to turning the tide,” the report said.

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