Straight talk on jobs needed in RI

Feb 10, 2013

Another week passes with the usual palaver  from the Rhode Island political and business elite on economic development. RIPR political  analyst Scott MacKay says its time for some changes in the way Rhode Islanders view our state and ourselves.

In the infamous quip of Mark Twain, ``figures don’t lie but liars figure.’’ A joint report by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the tribune of business, and the state Senate came to the predictable conclusion: Our state must strive to reverse the ratings of national think tanks and business groups that show Rhode Island with a terrible business climate.

One of these rankings by the CNBC, the ESPN of the stock market stat geeks, even ranked Rhode Island last in the nation in on how appealing the state is to start or grow a business. Other rankings, such as those issued by Chief Executive Magazine, put our state 39th overall in business friendliness.

Last week, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce held a well-attended luncheon at the Convention Center that led to a polite, albeit desultory, conversation among business executives, Governor Lincoln Chafee and General Assembly leaders.

Everybody had a nice lunch. The business folks praised the politicians. The politicians spouted their platitudes. Reporters groped for news, finally coming away with a sliver: Twin River is adding a few more jobs that previously announced to take advantage of the casino-style table games approved by voters in November.

Yet, all the my-eyes-glaze-over reports, vows of partnership among business, government and academia and political cheerleading mask the serious problems that impede economic development.

It’s time for some blunt and forthright talk from our state’s leaders. And time for a historic change in Rhode Island attitudes.

In the warm bath of nostalgia, our state was a better place to earn a living when manufacturing was the foundation of  the economy. Factories provided thousands of jobs churning out textiles, jewelry, electronics and machine tools. Unions gave workers security and good wages.

Such nostalgia is the enemy of clear thinking about the future. Those jobs aren’t coming back. Get over it and make sure you or your children get an education. Our workforce is not as well educated as those in neighboring New England states. Government must provide good public education, but it can’t force students to take advantage of it. Our high school drop rates are way too high and there are no factory jobs left for low-skill workers. Dropping out of school means a fast-food job at starvation wages.

Too many parents are not pushing their children to excel and too many children are not listening to their teachers. We need to stop complaining and expecting the government to provide jobs. No poverty program is ever as effective as a paycheck.

Jobs are out there. Do you know any good nurses or engineers who are unemployed?

And it’s time to end the Rhode Island not-in-my-backyard syndrome before it kills any more jobs. Our state is in dire need of better transportation infrastructure and construction jobs. So why did we lose an entire construction season on the Green Airport runway expansion? Because a handful of Warwick neighbors wanted to reverse 13 years of environmental studies and delay the project.

It would also help if the State House crowd would act in a tough and responsible manner when confronted with the inertia and turf scrums that too often ruin progress. Exhibit A: The plan for a joint nursing school building for the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College in Providence’s old Jewelry District. This project made sense on so many levels: transforming an old urban manufacturing neighborhood into a 21st century medical education complex, near the Brown Medical School and the hospitals where nursing students get clinical training. The plan never made it out of the legislature after RIC’s nursing faculty put up a fight. Chafee has put the plan back on track. Let's see that it isn't derailed this time around.

Let’s all understand that economic development is a marathon, not a sprint. So no more dubious, short-term fixes, a la Curt Schilling.

Don’t take some of the national rankings too seriously. Many of these ratings are advanced by groups pushing one ideology or another.  We are not Mississippi.

On an existential level, Rhode Islanders ought to consign the state’s inferiority complex to the dustbin of history.  As Chafee says, ``bad business reports seem to get a lot of publicity in Rhode Island, for some reason.’’

Why would any business want to move to a state where the glass is always half-empty? Sometimes, even the ocean doesn’t compensate for the attitude in the Ocean State.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at thr `On Politics’ Blog at