PROVIDENCE — US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh urged Rhode Island business leaders on Monday to invest in job training and apprenticeship programs, while touting the uncommon partnership their respective agencies have developed over the last two years.
Raimondo, the former Rhode Island governor who is viewed as the closest link between the Biden administration and Wall Street, and Walsh, the former Boston mayor who maintains strong relationships with both public and private unions, said the country is facing a critical moment where the unemployment rate is low but employers across many sectors are struggling to find qualified workers.
“My greatest worry is that we won’t have the talent we need,” Raimondo said during a panel discussion hosted by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. She was specifically referring to the Biden administration’s push to build more semiconductors in the US instead of relying so heavily on Taiwan and other Asian countries.
Raimondo said the country used to make a third of the world’s computer chips, but that number has dwindled to around 10 percent in recent years. She said the CHIPS Act that was approved earlier this year is meant to spur chip manufacturing, and will create “a million-plus jobs.”
Walsh dismissed the notion of “quiet quitting” — the term used for employees refusing to go above and beyond their job description — and said the worker shortage is not a new phenomenon. He said employers to need to ensure workers are “skilled up” for careers that will earn them middle class incomes.
“I think the American worker is still hungry,” Walsh said. “I think they’re still aggressive.”
Walsh joked that the event, held at the Rhode Island Convention Center, was clearly a “home game” for Raimondo, who received extended applause from hundreds of local business leaders in attendance.
Walsh said he wants to see employers do a better job of reaching young people — early in high school — to show them the opportunities they might have in various sectors. He said Germany has become a model around the world for working with teenagers to help them figure out where they can earn a solid paycheck long before they’re ready to enter the workforce.
“Go to freshmen,” Walsh said. “Let them know what they can make in your profession.”
Both secretaries also highlighted the need for a more diverse workforce.
While the overall national unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, Walsh said, it’s more than twice as high among Black Americans. Raimondo said that “it can’t just be white men” working in the chip manufacturing space.
Raimondo and Walsh also touted the Biden administration’s effort to expand broadband across the country. On Monday, Raimondo announced Rhode Island would receive $5.5 million in planning grants to help the state craft a plan to ensure that all residents have internet access.
Walsh called the broadband expansion one of the most important parts of the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden signed into law in 2021. He said it will create construction jobs up front and help businesses attract workers.
Raimondo said the Biden administration is working to close the digital divide once and for all. In some parts of the country, it’s about literally offering more broadband access, she said, but in Rhode Island, it’s going to be about ensuring that it’s affordable for everyone.
“It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Raimondo said.