Violet: RIPEC report misses the mark

Arlene Violet

If I have to read one more report about economic development, I thought, I am going to scream! Well, I am hoarse today since I plowed through all 135 pages of the recent Rhode Island Public Expenditure Corporation (RIPEC) tome.

Please don’t get me wrong: I appreciate RIPEC’s effort. I just don’t want to see another “czar” or new agency created when the solution for the state’s malaise has been around since 1978, and doesn’t have anything to do with a czardom. That’s when the first Economic Development Corporation (EDC) issued a comprehensive analysis of what was causing our stagnant growth. Here is the problem: the lack of an appropriate secondary education and the resulting scarcity of a trained work force. Study after study has chronicled the lack of employable skills of graduating seniors and other young adults. Without people able to do the jobs in this work environment, businesses go where the talent is. That’s why we don’t have companies flocking here.

I wrote a column in 2009 following a then panel’s review of the EDC. The quasi-public agency was excoriated for its lack luster performance. The “prescription” assigned for recovery was such recommendations as, consistent leadership, an investment in economic development, a need for synergy between economic policy and implementation, and tax and permit review reform. Ho hum! The RIPEC report is a regurgitation of “findings” three years ago but for the elephant in the room, namely, the failure of the educational system to train employable adults.

Two years prior to the 2009 study above, another report entitled “Education and Workforce Scorecard” heralded the collision course underway to our stagnating Rhode Island economy because “Large numbers of Rhode Island job-seekers and incumbent workers lack the skills to fill vacancies in high-demand occupations. Rhode island’s economy and work force are moving in opposite directions.” This report called for broad changes in school curriculum and worker retraining.

So, what has happened since 1978 and the warnings in 2007? Virtually nothing. In a state of slightly more than a million people, about 145,000 adults still lack a high school diploma and about 45,000 have limited English skills. Query whether those who even hold a sheepskin really have an “education” which equips them for jobs in the 21st century.

In effect, the RIPEC report calls for reforms that are so old they have grown whiskers and which also avoids a core truth: The public schools aren’t adequately preparing students for jobs. The real “reform” is to call for a revamping of the educational system, a political truth that is apparently too far beyond the courage of our so-called leaders to implement. They’d have to tussle with the unions and the teacher training programs at the state colleges. Instead, the politicians will wrap their arms around this RIPEC report, promise a new direction and go back to business as usual. In other words, they will continue to rearrange the seats on the Titanic.

It should be no surprise that this state has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation. I would imagine that the RIPEC report will be used as a prop to shield the chronic misfeasance of political leaders who dodge real reform of the educational system and job training. It is this lack of courage that condemns real families to unreal low wages.

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