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SHANNON GILKEY, R.I. postsecondary commissioner, says he's optimistic that the state can still close workforce gaps despite the proposed 'higher ed academy' not making it into this year's fiscal budget. /PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
SHANNON GILKEY, R.I. postsecondary commissioner, says he’s optimistic that the state can still close workforce gaps despite the proposed ‘higher ed academy’ not making it into this year’s fiscal budget. /PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Optimism remains with the R.I. Office of Postsecondary Commissioner on the state addressing workforce shortages and helping residents achieve an education despite Gov. Daniel J. McKee’s higher ed academy proposal not making it into the 2023 fiscal budget.

Plus, the idea of such an academy coming to fruition is not dead.

The proposed $22.5 million academy was first introduced in January as part of McKee’s 2023 fiscal budget proposal, however it was not included in the $13.6 billion budget the R.I. House approved earlier in June. House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, said Wednesday in an emailed statement the House’s budget priority was to concentrate on providing funding for “existing programs” in higher education, adult education and the Real Jobs Rhode Island program.

“The House wants to make sure those programs run well, rather than funding new ones,” Shekarchi said, also noting that the proposed academy would be given consideration next year if it is reintroduced.

The academy was slated to be administered by the R.I. Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner and be a statewide effort to support Rhode Islanders who either haven’t entered college or unable to finish their postsecondary education due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The academy was proposed to be funded over four fiscal years through via funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and collaborate with all the state’s higher education institutions. McKee also held in late March a roundtable discussion in Central Falls with college students who shared their experiences in facing various barriers navigating higher education within the Ocean State.

R.I. Postsecondary Commissioner Shannon Gilkey told Providence Business News Wednesday he is optimistic in having the academy be reintroduced next year, and possibly become a reality, mainly because the need to address Rhode Island’s workforce issues “is still the same.”

“We have relatively low unemployment, but we have a lot of underemployment,” Gilkey said. “We have a lot of people working jobs that don’t qualify for the middle class or greater.”

Gilkey said individuals getting a credential is “the quickest way” to enhance the middle class and getting people out of working entry level positions. The higher ed academy, Gilkey said, would have been a “community-by-community approach” to increase individuals’ skills to reach the middle-class workforce level “a lot quicker.”

The academy would have also offered wraparound services – helping students eliminate any barriers that are in their way toward getting an education – mirroring such services offered by the state’s Rhode Island Reconnect program in conjunction with the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, Gilkey said.

Gilkey said in lieu of the higher ed academy he wants the Rhode Island Reconnect program to grow and “serve more” than the approximately 1,600 Rhode Islanders the program currently has. Additionally, RIOPC is partnering with the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services to target wraparound services for people working in the health care industry.

Gilkey also said RIPOC is currently constructing an education center in Woonsocket, similar to the already operating Westerly Education Center, that will further provide workforce training in the state. The postsecondary commissioner also said the state is facilitating some workforce training in Woonsocket, but the new education center – expected to be fully built by this summer – will collaborate with public and private institutions to offer people education in the city.

“We’re making progress to make sure we have a location in downtown Woonsocket to help Rhode Islanders,” Gilkey said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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