Prioritizing business engagement in Rhode Island: A Q&A with Rick Brooks

August 28, 2015

Rick Brooks, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Governor’s Workforce Board, speaks with NSC about the state’s efforts to engage businesses in workforce development efforts, and how NSC and WDQC help track the impact of their investment.

Tell us a little about your professional background. What brought you to your position of Executive Director of the Rhode Island Governor’s Workforce Board?

I came to the Governor’s Workforce Board with 30 years of experience doing education, advocacy, and organizing to improve the lives of working people here inRhode Island. I was as a labor educator at the Institute for Labor Studies, where I developed and oversaw a number of programs ranging from workplace adult education, workplace rights, union leadership, and job training. In the early 1990’s, we developed an occupational skills training program for preparing unemployed and under-employed Rhode Islanders for jobs at the publically-financed hotel and convention center that was being built.

I then went on to serve as the director of the state’s largest healthcare workers union, and in that capacity I was responsible for labor relations, health policy, leadership development, and communications. I also continued my work in workforce development by partnering with the two largest healthcare systems in the Rhode Island to create the “Stepping Up” program. Stepping Up is a career ladder program for healthcare workers in entry-level positions as well as for people who are not yet working in healthcare but want to get into those jobs.

About four years ago, I decided to commit myself to public service. I wanted to make an impact by working on policy and planning as well as funding and oversight to improve workforce development. The Governor’s Workforce Board provides exciting opportunities to collaborate with so many partners who are doing great things throughout the state. We provide guidance and coordination to make sure that workers are getting trained in skills that businesses are looking for.

The Governor’s Workforce Board aims to develop policies and programs that increase the education and skill levels of workers, and address the workforce needs of employers. What are some challenges you face in your role as Executive Director, and what has been your proudest accomplishment?

The biggest challenge in workforce development is that the system is very complicated. Workforce development activities are funded by numerous sources, and the way services are delivered is so diverse that the system can be fragmented and unwieldy for policymakers, businesses, and job-seekers to access or understand. Businesses often lack confidence that education and training providers have the ability to prepare workers for jobs that they’re looking to fill, and conversely education and training providers run into difficulty getting quality information on the types and numbers of workers businesses need.

That being said, I feel good about our efforts to overcome these hurdles. One of the top priorities of the Governor’s Workforce Board is to develop employer partnerships and engage Rhode Island businesses and we have taken a number of steps to achieve this. We formed an employer advisory group to reach out broadly to businesses and make sure that we’re hearing from as many businesses as possible about how the workforce system could better meet their needs, and to also let businesses know what services are available. We’ve extended our online outreach through surveys, newsletters, and social media. We’ve made changes to our grant making to make it more responsive and user-friendly. 

Most importantly, we want to connect business and education, and we’re building that into just about everything we do. We have robust industry partnerships that represent the major industries inRhode Island, some of which we’ve supported for close to 10 years. We support these partnerships because we want them to be the voice of businesses in each sector and convey their particular workforce needs. Businesses have been partnering with schools, community-based organizations, and other parts of the workforce education and training system to create career pathways. We also created a new grant initiative called the Workforce Innovation Grant. The core elements of these grants are: partnerships between business and education providers, experiential learning, an emphasis on work-readiness, and an alignment with career pathways. This represents the board’s best thinking on the priorities of workforce development. Most recently, under the leadership of Governor Gina M. Raimondo, the GWB is supporting the Governor’s new Real Jobs RI initiative to further expand the scale and impact of demand-driven workforce training programs.

Prior to joining the Governor’s Workforce Board, you served as the executive director of United Nurses and Allied Professionals, where you founded and guided a health care career pathways program for frontline workers. What lessons did you take away from this experience and how does it inform your work at the board?

The secret to the success of Stepping Up is that it brought in multiple employers, labor management partnerships, community-based organizations, and training providers. By creating a career pathway, Stepping Up enabled workers to move up and also enabled workers who were not employed in the industry to get their first job. The program was client-centric in that it recognized the educational, social, and emotional needs of its participants, but it was also designed to meet the needs of health care employers.

More than anything, the takeaway from that experience is that successful workforce development needs to fully engage businesses so that the program at every level is responsive to businesses’ needs. The businesses were involved in helping to recruit clients or set the standards for recruitment. They helped develop and refine the curriculum, and provided guest speakers, work site tours, internships, and ultimately job placements. The more businesses are invested upfront and are closely connected to the pre-employment training, the more confidence and commitment they’ll have in the program and the more likely they’ll be to hire the program graduates. They’re not sitting back at a distance waiting to see what you produce. They are involved with producing the trainees.

You’ve been involved with National Skills Coalition, Workforce Data Quality Campaign (WDQC), and the State Workforce and Education Alignment Project (SWEAP). How have these connections advanced your work in Rhode Island?

As I mentioned before, the workforce system is complicated. With multiple funding streams and different eligibility and reporting requirements, it can be quite challenging for policymakers and people in the system to fully understand the impact of investment. Working with WDQC and SWEAP will be very helpful for us to develop better data systems. We currently have a lot of data but we don’t necessarily have the most useful analysis. Under SWEAP, we will be creating data dashboards to track key outcomes; we will improve our ability to quantify workforce supply and demand needs; and we will develop tools to help us evaluate our career pathways efforts in Rhode Island. It’s about being able to analyze, interpret, and act upon the data that we have. We’re relying on working with WDQC and SWEAP to help us better understand the needs, define the appropriate targets, and determine what the impact of our investments is.

NSC has been an incredible resource for its advocacy and information about national trends, legislation, best practices in other states, and articulating a vision for what workforce development can and should be. My involvement with NSC has opened up opportunities to connect with other colleagues who are doing great work around the country.