OP-ED: Congressman Langevin and “Fueling a 21st Century Workforce”

By Congressman James Langevin, District 2

Rhode Island’s economic competitiveness is inextricably linked to our ability to educate and train a workforce capable of filling 21st Century jobs.  However, too many employers I meet are reporting challenges in finding workers with the necessary skills to succeed in growing fields like healthcare, technology, and advanced manufacturing, even as unemployment in the Ocean State remains well above the national average. 

One of the more troubling examples involved the addition of twenty new employees at a local health information technology company, which should be a cause to celebrate in this economy. However, despite significant outreach efforts in our state, only two of the hires hailed from Rhode Island.  If we are serious about closing this skills gap and building a sustainable economy with a lasting competitive edge, we need to make immediate investments in the education and training of our workforce that meet the needs of our employers.

We have excellent institutions in our state making important strides on this front, exemplified by the Community College of Rhode Island’s creation of a certificate program with National Grid to prepare a new generation of utility workers.  The Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School is another innovative model offering students the opportunity to obtain a high school degree as well as professional credentials to apply towards a nursing career. However, if we fail to cultivate these successful partnerships and ensure they have the resources to create effective programs, the mismatch between workers and employers will persist.

As co-chair of the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, I have led a bipartisan initiative to restore funding for the Perkins Act, a major federal resource for career and technical education that prepares over 14 million college and career-ready students and displaced workers seeking employment in new fields.  Perkins funding helps programs like Coventry High School keep its supplies up to date and functional for a variety of courses, including kitchen equipment for their culinary program. While funding for this Act has been steadily reduced since 2010, nationwide enrollment in CTE programs is at its highest level in over eight years.

I have also introduced legislation with Congressman Tim Ryan to support grants for alternative hands-on math and science learning. Our bill would help fund innovative education efforts in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, like the robotics program at the 21st Century Community Learning Center that the YMCA of Greater Providence runs with Deering Middle School in West Warwick.  My visit to Deering in April only underscored the value of engaging students at an early age to ignite their passion for learning while gaining skills that will provide the foundation for successful careers in the future.

However, preparing students for successful careers at any age not only requires the appropriate foundational skill sets, but effective educational and career guidance.  In today’s rapidly evolving industrial climate, school counselors play an essential role in informing and guiding students into career fields that match their individual needs and interests. Now more than ever, school counselors require additional resources, information and support to prepare the next generation of talent for opportunities that lie ahead. 

To better meet these requirements, I will soon be introducing legislation to authorize much-needed funding for comprehensive counseling services that will help students make educated decisions about their future, whether they choose a four-year degree, career and technical education program, private-sector apprenticeship or another option.

Providing a first-class education to every student is not just a moral imperative, it is an economic one.  If we invest in a workforce prepared to meet the challenges of a knowledge-based, global marketplace, we will be one step closer to fueling the economic engine that will drive a more prosperous and sustainable future for Rhode Island and its residents.

Congressman Langevin, a Democrat, is the U.S. Representative for Rhode Island's Congressional District 2. Langevin has served in Congress since 2001. Before that time, Langevin served as a state representative and Secretary of State. 

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