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Rhode Island, via a partnership between Governor Raimondo and the Legislature, continues to provide the targeted incentives needed to grow our economy. Local businesses are expanding and new businesses are relocating to Rhode Island once again. But while these incentives are essential in the short-term, they alone cannot not sustain the long-term economic growth we need to truly thrive.

One critical tool for sustained economic growth is a statewide K-20 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Strategic Plan. Such a plan would ensure our workforce meets the needs of high-skill, high-growth industries, such as: biomedical innovation, IT/software, defense, maritime trades, advanced business services, food, and custom manufacturing. Many states developed STEM Strategic Plans to align public education with workforce development, including neighboring Massachusetts, but Rhode Island has not.

Companies carefully consider a state’s workforce and education system before they invest, as evidenced by Amgen’s recent expansion (“Adding 150 jobs at RI’s Amgen, 4/11/18), “…the company’s experience in Rhode Island, coupled with the state’s ‘talented workforce’ and its offer of incentives, led to a decision to build here…” Workforce talent is particularly important in the defense economy, which is Rhode Island’s highest paying job sector. Undoubtedly, a STEM Strategic Plan would better position Rhode Island when the Department of Defense considers future investment and contracts.

While successful businesses need good processes, technology, and tools, the key ingredient is people.  Several K – 20 STEM education initiatives have achieved unprecedented results. These include Computer Science for All Rhode Islanders (CS4RI), Project Lead the Way, Pathways In Technology Early College High School Career and Technical Education programs, PrepareRI and the Wavemaker Fellowship.  Yet, even in light of this progress, Rhode Island lacks an overall framework in which these programs can complement each other and thrive.

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The first step towards establishing this framework is a statewide assessment of programs led by our K-12 schools, colleges, and state agencies. Second, we must work with the private sector to understand statewide demand for STEM workforce. Once we’re aware of the current state of our workforce and our future need, we can proceed to thoughtfully outline a plan with specific, tactical steps to close the talent gap.

The right person must lead the development and implementation of Rhode Island’s STEM Strategic Plan. Implementation will not be a short term endeavor. Rather, it will be a multi-year effort requiring sustained investment and stakeholder support. We must stay the course and not waiver. I, for one, will assist in this process to ensure Rhode Island’s workforce is ready and able. Our economic future depends on it!

Lou DiPalma – Senator, District 12 (Middletown, Little Compton, Tiverton and Newport)

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