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This workforce development program is paying for students’ rent, electricity, and other bills while they learn

Rhode Island’s largest health care system has more than 1,800 open positions

Isaac Demola, 23, was a participant in the workforce development program at Lifespan, which helped him pay his bills and gave him a job while he studied to become a pharmacy technician.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — While Isaac Demola was enrolled in the Lifespan health care system’s workforce development program, he didn’t have to worry about his bills: His rent, electricity, groceries, insurance, and cellphone bill were all covered.

Demola, 23, who is from the South Side of Providence, had studied information technology at Rhode Island College and, upon graduation, decided he wanted to work in a pharmacy, which would have required more training. But most graduate school programs were out of reach due to costs.

“I had classmates from college that have a degree but don’t have a job yet,” said Demola, who was connected to Lifespan through the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner’s RI Reconnect program. “That would have been me, too.”

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And while he could have applied for grants and scholarships, he would still have needed a laptop and to take care of his bills while in school.

It’s an issue that Alexis Devine, the program manager of workforce development at Lifespan, the state’s largest private employer, has seen since joining the company in 2004. But never, she said, has she seen the need be as exacerbated as it has during COVID-19.

“We have more than 1,800 open positions. And there are people that want to find or change their career path. But getting people in the door — especially those who look like our patients — hasn’t been easy,” she said.

Demola was given a new laptop and had his bills paid for, and Lifespan gave him a job working security while in the program to become a pharmacy tech.

“These services, called ‘wrap-around services’ in our industry, are essential for helping adults enter, persist and complete workforce training programs and degree-granting institutions across the state,” said Beth Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, in an e-mail to the Globe.

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Recently, after completing Lifespan’s summer youth employment and its 12-week Workforce STAT (Solutions, Training, and Teamwork) program, Demola was offered a full-time position at Rhode Island Hospital. He’s one of about 2,000 people who have gone through the programs at Lifespan and been hired upon graduation.

Alexis Devine, manager of the workforce development programs at Lifespan, Rhode Island's largest private employer, said "getting people in the door — especially those who look like our patients — hasn’t been easy." Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The system, which owns Rhode Island, The Miriam, Newport, Hasbro Children’s, and Bradley Hospitals, has built robust career development programs in the past. But after a $10 million donation from the Papitto Opportunity Connection, as well as funding from state agency programs such as Back to Work RI, the RI Reconnect program, and Real Jobs RI, Lifespan is looking to hire more than 1,000 people over the next four years from the state’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color community.

The donation will accelerate the system’s efforts to build “a forward-thinking” workforce program that will provide opportunities for entry and advancement, particularly in high-need areas. The result, which the Papitto Opportunity Connection intends through its award to Lifespan, will create better career pathways into higher-paying jobs for the BIPOC community. And it’s seeking candidates to be placed in roles such as nursing assistants, radiology techs, behavioral health workers, transport aides, pharmacy techs, medical assistants, and emergency room technicians.

In some cases, these positions and certifications are only a start to a candidate’s time at Lifespan. Many, said Devine, have used this opportunity to “get their foot in the door” and continue to grow within the system. She said, “We want a homegrown workforce.”

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“This is about improving access to advanced education and leadership development to increase career opportunities for BIPOC individuals, and that includes eliminating barriers to job entry and advancement,” said Lisa Abbott, Lifespan senior vice president of human resources and community affairs. Because of the new grant, “We’re able to say to someone, ‘We can invest in you over a period of time.’”

Isaac Demola meets with Alexis Devine of Lifespan and signs paperwork after receiving a job offer to work as a pharmacy technician at Rhode Island Hospital. Devine said Demola is one of about 2,000 people who have gone through the workforce training programs at Lifespan and been hired after graduation.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The youth programs help prepare students for workplace readiness, such as social and emotional learning, unconscious bias, and skills like how to send a proper e-mail, with appropriate paid, supervised summer work on the side. Each summer, about 100 to 120 youth are hired as employees at the system.

The STAT program provides class training, certifications, and career pathway coaching, and the system pays for any necessary uniforms and textbooks, day care, technology, food, housing, and transportation expenses that students need to get in — and stay in — the program.

“So while some people are running from [the health care] industry, others are jumping into the fire,” said Devine.

Zoe Kandakai, another workforce development program alum, is one of those people. She moved with her family to Rhode Island from West Africa as a girl. When she was 17, she received her certified nursing assistant’s license at her high school, the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College ,before graduating in 2015. After working in clinical and classroom settings for the last eight years, she enrolled in Lifespan’s career development programs and is now a program coordinator within the workforce development department. Most recently, she helped coordinate the 16th Annual Health Summit with the African Alliance of Rhode Island.

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“Public health, education, and looking at social determinants of health interest me. We still need health care workers that aren’t just on the clinical side,” said Kandakai. “But there was no clear pathway until I found this program that gave me the opportunity to get by while I learn.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.