'Rhode to Work' plan sees mixed success

Providence - The Rhode Island Senate's high-priority workforce development initiative saw mixed success in the 2014 legislative session, with several measures stalling in the House without ever having a hearing and others ending up at the last minute as nonbinding resolutions.

Nine of the 21 pieces of legislation in the original "Rhode to Work" package passed the General Assembly and were sent to Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

Seven bills died. That includes five that passed the Senate late in the session and then did not get heard on the House side, and two that didn't get a Senate vote before final adjournment June 21.

A few of the bills that stalled in the House were turned into nonbinding resolutions and passed by the Senate in the session's final hours.

In unveiling the Rhode to Work "legislative action plan" in January, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed cited the need for urgent action on workforce development in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate - now 8.2 percent. She called it her top priority.

Nearly 46,000 Rhode Islanders are unemployed, many because they have gaps in their skill sets, officials say.

In a recent interview, Paiva Weed said she's happy with the legislation that passed and plans to pursue some measures again next year.

"I was very pleased with the outcome of our plan," the Newport Democrat said. "I think it's always important to begin with recognizing that the impacts of having a plan are not necessarily felt right away."

She highlighted as the greatest achievement a bill merging the Human Resource Investment Council with the existing Governor's Workforce Board, making the latter the sole body responsible for coordinating and managing workforce development in the state.

Efforts now are sometimes considered scattered.

She said the bill will allow the board to find and eliminate bottlenecks and "silos."

Paiva Weed also cited passage of a bill securing $1.3 million more for the Job Development Fund, which businesses pay into to cover worker training costs. The legislation exempts the fund from a 10 percent assessment that had gone into the state's general fund.

Also passed were measures calling on the state Education Department to restore GED fee waivers for low-income takers of the now-costlier test, though no funding was provided; supporting full education funding for all-day kindergarten on an expedited basis; and doubling the total reimbursable work hours for employers in the state's work immersion program.

Other bills add someone on the Governor's Workforce Board as a nonvoting member of the board of education and encourage school districts to provide professional development for counselors that will help them link students to internships.

The Senate alone passed five more modest resolutions from the original package, including ones asking, but not requiring, various institutions and departments to take certain workforce development-related steps.

Among the measures that died:

• A bill to appropriate $1 million to help eliminate waiting lists for adult education learners by expanding sites and hiring more instructors. Now, 1,300 people are waiting, some for a year.

• A measure to "re-imagine" career and technical education statewide by eventually launching up to two new school sites. The Rhode to Work plan called for a $1 million incentive to spark the process.

n- Legislation to create a wage reimbursement incentive to encourage businesses to offer apprenticeships in nontrade sectors, including manufacturing and IT. It would be 50 percent, up to $1,000 per apprentice.

• A bill to study creation of state-administered "lifelong learning" accounts designed to help workers save money for training, possibly with an employer or state match.

Larry Berman, a spokesman for Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, cited the cost of the wage subsidy legislation as a reason the House didn't support it. He said other bills relating to appointments to the apprenticeship council and "proficiency-based learning" weren't considered necessary.

The House passed its own version of a career and technical education bill that establishes a new governance model and a trust to raise funds for CTE initiatives. The Senate approved it, and it went into law without Chafee's signature.

Rhode Island Foundation CEO and President Neil Steinberg, who attended Paiva Weed's January action plan launch, said that all the measures may not have passed but that the "spirit" of Rhode to Work - and a broader dialogue in the legislature about improving the economy - is alive and well.

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