PBN summit: High business costs, education are concerns in R.I.

The Rhode Island economy has come a long way since the dark days of the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate was among the highest in the country.

R.I. Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, a panelist at the Providence Business News Economic Trends Summit at the Crowne Plaza Providence-Warwick on Feb. 13, noted that the state’s economic data is strong right now, with the unemployment rate at an impressively low 3.5%. The number of Rhode Island jobs hit an all-time high of 506,300.

Yes, the numbers look good for Rhode Island right now, but other summit panelists expressed concerns about the high costs of doing business in Rhode Island and, perhaps above all, they worried that the state’s educational system is not preparing the workforce of the future.

Pryor was joined on the panel by Luke Ebersold, Rhode Island managing partner for Blum, Shapiro & Co. PC; Mark K. W. Gim, president and chief operating officer at The Washington Trust Co.; Thomas O. Sweeney, founder of Sweeney Real Estate & Appraisal; and Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce.

‘Brains are the key to the future.’
STEFAN PRYOR, R.I. commerce secretary

Ebersold said that when he came into the Rhode Island market, his first priority was to grow the business. But when it came time to hire, he had trouble finding qualified people.

Pryor said a statistic worth watching is the percentage of the state’s population that holds credentials or degrees beyond a high school diploma. “Brains are the key to the future,” he said. “Over the next 20 years, a supermajority of jobs in Rhode Island will require these credentials.”

That’s true across the board, he said, but particularly in what he called “the blue economy,” centered around the state’s proximity to the ocean. Pryor said this blue economy, which encompasses offshore wind power and boat building, including Electric Boat Corp., could be a major driver of the state’s economic future.

But it needs a skilled workforce.

To that point, Urbach said the North Kingstown Chamber, through a Real Jobs Rhode Island state grant, is building a talent pipeline by establishing a high school certification program for offshore wind energy that trains students in skills, such as working at heights and marine safety. The program also entails an internship component.

Besides the pressing problem of education, panelists said Rhode Island needs to reduce the price of doing business in the state, which includes high energy costs, high taxes and burdensome regulation.

“Not only are we competing with other New England states but states across the country,” Ebersold said. “We want to make sure a Rhode Island company doesn’t relocate to Georgia instead of expanding in Rhode Island.”

When moderator Thomas Tzitzouris, a director at New York-based Strategas Research Partners, asked the Rhode Island panelists what they were worried about, especially concerns that might not be obvious, he got a variety of answers.

Ebersold was worried about the 2020 election results. Gim wondered when the enormous accumulated costs of federal budget deficits, entitlement spending and poorly funded municipal pension plans were going to come due. “The problems are so big, no one likes to think about them,” he said.

Pryor and Urbach were not happy with the glacial pace of federal regulatory decisions, particularly in the crucial wind energy field. Pryor said it’s hard for the state to move forward on the blue economy when federal agencies are dragging their feet on approvals for key projects.

Thomas O. Sweeney voiced his concern about the upcoming census and its potential impact on the state, particularly if Rhode Island should lose one of its two congressional seats.