Prepare RI summit highlights concerns, achievements in preparing young workforce (Warwick Beacon)

By Ethan Hartley & John Howell

Jobs was a hot topic at the Prepare Rhode Island Summit held Saturday at the Knight Campus of CCRI.

“We live in a world today that’s changing faster than ever and the only way we’re going to make sure that Rhode Islanders can keep up and get ahead is if they have relevant job skills. Period. End of discussion,” said Governor Gina Raimondo in her address to the gathering of hundreds of educators from 29 school districts and representatives from six area universities across the state. “And who deserves that? Everybody.”

Of the 16 workshops conducted during the morning-long event, the second of three summits organized by Prepare Rhode Island, Hot Jobs and High-Wage, High-Demand Industries was a must for many of the more than 300 educators and supporters of career education. It was also an eye-opener to what high school graduates can make without spending thousands on a college education.

There were incredulous looks as Joe Caparco of the New England Laborer’s Training Trust Fund Apprentice Program told how the program, of which the New England Laborers’ Construction Career Academy in Cranston is a part, pays those in an apprentice program, providing them with 10 percent raises after every 1,000 hours and 20 college credits after two years. He said starting salaries in what he described as “dangerous jobs” can be $30 an hour and higher.

Caparco’s urged educators to help to remove the stigma of not following a path to college.

“It’s not just a job,” he said, “it’s a career.” With the state’s plan to rebuild failing bridges, Caparaco sees no lack of building trades jobs, too. “This is a true career path,” he said.

Cumberland School Superintendent Robert Mitchell, who on hearing of what laborers could make factiously suggested he would be interested in the program, said, “we’re so focused on college prep that a lot of kids don’t feel they belong.”

Raimondo said in her address that, since the start of the Prepare RI program in 2016, the number of career technical programs in the state’s public schools have increased by 30 percent for a total of 155 such programs in Rhode Island.

“That means that there are hundreds of kids going to high school and getting training to be a cybersecurity technician or a welder or a plumber or a pipe fitter – they are leaving high school with a good job and no debt,” Raimondo said. “We need more of that.”

Caparaco said keys to getting into the union program are a good work ethic, high school diploma and passing a drug test. But under questioning, acceptance into the program didn’t look to be as easy as he made it sound. He said of 75 applicants, 22 had been accepted.

Sheryl Rabbitt, Warwick Chief Academic Officer, thought the message failed to emphasize the need for math and technology courses for all students whether they chose a path that takes them to college or into the trades.

It was a point also made by Nina Pande Executive Director of Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, a panelist at the Hot Jobs workshop.

She said the state is lacking critical thinking and well-rounded students and that schools need to concentrate on math skills and opportunities after high school.

Citing information provided by Bryant University that only 8 percent of Rhode Island high school graduates have the education to be eligible to enter Bryant, she said, “we’re not graduating students able to go to our universities.”

Panel member, Kris Turgeon, of Rhode Island’s P-TECH, (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) said students and parents need to change their thinking that college is four years away from home. “It’s not that all or nothing [perspective],” she said. P-TECH is the result of a statewide partnership between the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Community College of Rhode Island.

Raimondo said that Prepare RI is helping to address college readiness, reporting that placement in AP classes has increased by 40 percent in the state and that early college participation – through dual and concurrent enrollment and AP classes while kids are still in high school – has increased by 150 percent in the state.

“That’s hundreds of kids, if not more, who are having a chance at every public school in RI to get the advanced classes that they need to get a good job,” she said. “Rhode Island, our wonderful state of Rhode Island, is leading the nation in career readiness…We’re teaching kids and young people what matters so they can walk out and get a good job, and so employers feel great about hiring Rhode Islanders because they know we have the skills.”

In addition to Raimondo’s address, the event featured a cross-sector panel on career education in Rhode Island and 16 different breakout sessions. Workshops covered everything from setting up internships and apprenticeships, to student equity, and highlighting the pathways that help students transition from high school into postsecondary education and high-wage, high-demand careers.

“Our students are our most valuable asset, and PrepareRI is an investment in our students and an investment in our future,” said Raimondo.

Some milestones in Rhode Island’s career education landscape include:

  • Creation of five P-TECH programs, which are unique opportunities for students to earn a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a first-in-line job opportunity
  • From 2015 to 2017, the number of schools adopting computer science programs rose from 9 to 261 – a 2,800 percent increase
  • Over the past four years, Advanced Placement course participation has risen by 38 percent. Rhode Island had the largest year-over-year increase of any state in the country.

Also at the Summit, details on the PrepareRI Internship Program were shared with stakeholders. Thanks to a partnership between the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), the Governor’s Workforce Board, and Skills for Rhode Island’s Future, rising seniors are now eligible to apply for paid, six-to eight-week internships with one of 100 leading employers in the state. The internship application is now live, and students have until April 15 to apply, at which time Skills for Rhode Island’s Future will help select students and match them with employers for the summer of 2018.

To learn more about Prepare Rhode Island, visit the PrepareRI website or check out the 2018 annual report for goals, strategies, and more data.