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State economy struggles to recover

Like an unwanted visitor, the recession arrived early and stayed late in Rhode Island. And with national action on job creation currently at a standstill, the state's jobs problem appears to be sticking around for the foreseeable future.

During the recession, Rhode Island lost 31,000 jobs, of which the state has since regained only about 10 percent. In August, it had the sixth highest unemployment rate in the country.

"Rhode Island right now is at stall speed," said Leonard Lardaro, professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island. "We had a good time after the recession that ended in February of 2010, and now the rate of growth is slowing and really close to stalling out."

Lardaro said he believes this slowdown stems from a missed opportunity to address major systematic flaws.

"We missed it — we didn't reinvent ourselves," he said. "We need a systematic reinvention of our economy from the top down."

Lardaro said a proposed federal payroll tax holiday — part of the $447 billion jobs package supported by President Obama — would help Rhode Island by pumping money into its economy.

"It's been difficult for the population because, unlike other recoveries where you slowly bounce back, it's a jobless recovery," said Laura Hart, communications manager at Networkri, an organization that provides employment services throughout the state. "Businesses are doing better, but there aren't necessarily many jobs being created."

Networkri offers services to match job seekers with employers, such as resume-writing assistance, job search workshops and occupational skills training referrals. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allowed Networkri to tailor their services to better fit the needs of the community. "It gave us the capacity to add staff and also gave us the ability to train more people," Hart said.

The additional funds allowed the organization to provide more on-the-job training, which occurs when a business identifies a need for workers in a particular area. The business agrees to hire the worker, and Networkri pays half of that worker's training costs.

"They're considered employed, and the employer is subsidized for that, so it's financially advantageous for them to hire people," Hart said.

Networkri also offers WorkShare, a program that permits struggling businesses to reduce their workers' salaried hours while using unemployment insurance payments, which cover about 60 percent of a normal salary, to cover the remaining hours.

But funds are running out.

"With the (stimulus) money going away, I think there is some anxiety that we still may have a big population that needs to be served and less dollars with which they serve them," Hart said.

Lifespan, founded in 1994 as Rhode Island's first health system, is now the "largest health care provider and the largest private employer in Rhode Island," wrote Brandon Melton, the system's senior vice president of human resources, in an email to The Herald.

The company has distinguished itself as a job creator during the recession. From 2000 to 2010, Lifespan added 3,400 jobs, increasing its total workforce by 38 percent. Lifespan has not laid off a significant number of workers in over a decade, Melton said.

"The health care industry is not recession-proof, so we feel the effects of the financial challenges that have been facing our state and the nation," he said. "Our approach to these challenges has been to do whatever we can to preserve jobs."

Melton also described a skills gap that "will only worsen in the coming years as health care providers require even higher levels of skill education."

Just under half of the available jobs at Lifespan require at least some post-secondary education, and the remaining half require a bachelor's degree or higher. Almost 50 percent of Rhode Islanders have achieved only a high school education.

"We have significantly fewer Rhode Islanders educated at these levels," Melton said.

Hart also described the skills gap as an obstacle to locating jobs for the unemployed, particularly because workers trained for manufacturing jobs find it difficult to adjust to an economy demanding highly educated workers.

"Many years ago, particularly in the '60s and '70s, four out of 10 jobs were in manufacturing. Now, it is one in 10," she said.



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