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As nationwide unemployment grows, Rhode Island steps in to help residents find work

This week marked the 52nd straight week of high unemployment claims, with numbers rising as more than a million people filed for state and emergency federal unemployment benefits across the country. One state, Rhode Island, is working to reverse that trend by matching several thousand job-seeking residents with potential employers. Paul Solman has the story for our series, "Work Shift."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week marked the 52nd straight week with high unemployment claims. And, surprisingly, they actually rose from the previous week. More than a million people filed for state and emergency federal unemployment benefits.

    The state of Rhode Island is working to reverse the trend, matching several thousand residents with employers who need employees.

    Paul Solman has our report for our series Work Shift, which focuses on navigating the job market in a post-COVID economy.

  • Paul Solman:

    I'm thinking of changing careers. What have you got?

  • Computer voice:

    Do you want a law enforcement career?

  • Paul Solman:

    Meet Skipper, Rhode Island's job matchmaker, hooking up employers looking for labor with the state's unemployed due to COVID.

  • Erica Hanley:

    All of a sudden, everything stopped, and I lost my job.

  • Paul Solman:

    Renato Queiroz was running catering for a Newport resort when COVID hit.

  • Renato Queiroz:

    And I just didn't feel safe anymore, especially with weddings and parties. You can't keep people apart.

  • Paul Solman:

    Mary Claussen had two retail jobs. Both went kaput.

  • Mary Claussen:

    I felt a lot of anxieties. What do I do now?

  • Paul Solman:

    And Craig Garner lost the latest of his many warehouse jobs.

  • Craig Garner:

    Never over $12.

  • Paul Solman:

    Never over $12 an hour?

  • Craig Garner:

    No. And if you got a raise, it was maybe like 10 cents, 15 cents, nothing you can like live off of, you know?

  • Paul Solman:

    Just four of some 7,000 state residents who've signed up with Back to Work Rhode Island a program that's used CARES Act millions to train folks for jobs that the state's employers just can't fill. And it turns out there are plenty of those.

  • Karen Paolucci:

    It is very tough to find workers. I mean, you can schedule someone for an interview, and they don't even come for their interview.

  • Paul Solman:

    Karen Paolucci heads H.R. at industrial robot maker Yushin.

  • Karen Paolucci:

    Last year, I spent $25,000 on recruiting fees just trying to fill open positions. And with COVID, it didn't help, because if you could stay home, you could make the $600 stimulus on top of what you would receive from unemployment.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, a number of academic studies dispute that the $600 discouraged work.

    But I have interviewed several workers and employers who echoed Paolucci's stay-at-home claim. As for Craig Garner:

    Did you know people who did that?

  • Craig Garner:

    Absolutely, but I just couldn't be one of those people.

  • Paul Solman:

    So what did you do?

  • Craig Garner:

    It was tough, because everything was shut down. And then, eventually, I started seeing Gina Raimondo on TV.

  • Gina Raimondo:

    If you're a Rhode Islander, and you're hearing this, and you're out of work, and you're afraid, Back to Work R.I.

  • Paul Solman:

    That's former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, now President Biden's commerce secretary.

  • Gina Raimondo:

    This is a big deal. This isn't just job training.

  • Paul Solman:

    She also touted the Back to Work program to employers.

  • Gina Raimondo:

    This isn't train and pray. We're not going to train and pray you hire folks. We will tailor these training initiatives so that, when you hire someone, you have confidence they're going to be able to do the job.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, Craig Garner signed up and soon got an interview at Yushin. He forgot, however, about dressing for success.

  • Karen Paolucci:

    Craig came down in his jogging pants. And I wasn't 100 percent impressed.

  • Paul Solman:

    One thing that seemed to turn off people at Yushin when you arrived was, you were wearing sweatpants.

  • Craig Garner:

    Man, after I left the building, I thought about that for like the whole month. If I lose this opportunity over sweatpants, I will be very extremely mad.

  • Paul Solman:

    Especially since the job, in which he'd learn how to build robots, offered him a way out of dead-end warehouse work. In the end:

  • Karen Paolucci:

    I wasn't happy with his jogging pants but he said: I want to work. If you give me a chance, I can prove to you that I will be an asset to your company.

    That hit my heart.

  • Craig Garner:

    You can never judge a book by its cover, never.

  • Paul Solman:

    And never judge a job applicant by his sweatpants?

  • Craig Garner:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    For Craig Garner, then, not just a new job, but a new career. Same for laid-off retail worker Mary Claussen, age 32, who one day last summer happened to check out the state Labor Department's Web site.

  • Mary Claussen:

    And I saw that the very next day they were having this Zoom info session for this behavioral health specialist training. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I want to do this more than anything.

  • Paul Solman:

    You mean this was literally your dream job?

  • Mary Claussen:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    But with no college degree, Claussen felt she wasn't qualified.

    Now, after the five-week full time program, a collaboration of a local hospital, a community college and the state, she runs therapy groups for hospitalized adolescents.

  • Mary Claussen:

    And there are more opportunities that sort of arise as you kind of move up in the ranks a bit, which is just this amazing feeling because we're there every day trying to help give these kids some bit of hope. To kind of feel some of that with sort of straightening out my own life is this really powerful thing.

  • Scott Jensen:

    There are a lot of jobs that, with reasonable amount of training, one can be real good at and thrive.

  • Paul Solman:

    Especially, says Scott Jensen, head of the state's Department of Labor and Training, if employers are intimately involved. And hand-holding would-be employees through the process.

  • Scott Jensen:

    So, did you like science class in high school? Sure. I loved it. Oh, and you're in the hospitality industry now, OK? Have you ever thought about being a process technologist?

  • Paul Solman:

    An advanced manufacturing worker, that is, using cutting-edge machines, as, for example, in the pharmaceutical industry.

  • Renato Queiroz:

    I was enamored with the idea of going from food to the sciences.

  • Paul Solman:

    Turns out laid-off catering manager Renato Queiroz had liked science class.

  • Renato Queiroz:

    Biotechnology. Right away, I could see myself doing it.

  • Paul Solman:

    But biotech for a 31-year-old who had never even signed up for college?

    What went through your mind?

  • Renato Queiroz:

    That I must have been crazy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    But he wasn't.

  • Renato Queiroz:

    I'm in talks with Amgen right now. I'm waiting for a start date.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you have actually already got a job in industry?

  • Renato Queiroz:

    Correct. I am astounded, because I didn't have any experience going in.

  • Paul Solman:

    But he got 10 weeks of training on state-of-the-art equipment, just like he will be using at Amgen's new plant in Rhode Island.

  • Erica Hanley:

    So, it's basically getting those that are underemployed and unemployed trained and ready to go and enter an industry that needs people to get into that industry.

  • Woman:

    Give yourselves a round of applause.

  • Paul Solman:

    Just like Erica Hanley, the former travel industry sales rep, now with a newly minted certificate in mortgage finance.

  • Erica Hanley:

    They saw that people are retiring. So there was a need for trained individuals to come into the mortgage banking industry.

  • Paul Solman:

    And how much did this cost you?

  • Erica Hanley:

    Nothing. This was free. This was covered by the state of Rhode Island.

  • Paul Solman:

    But what if you can't afford to be out of work while training?

  • Scott Jensen:

    We pay for people's laptops. We pay for things like your grocery bills and things like new brakes for your car, for child care.

  • Paul Solman:

    We end this story with economist Bob Lerman, a skeptic of many job training programs.

  • Robert Lerman:

    It's good, but it's just not, in my view, good enough.

  • Paul Solman:

    Instead, Lerman advocates apprenticeship programs, like the one he took us to years ago to at BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, where trainees are paid to learn on the job.

  • Robert Lerman:

    I'd like to have a little bonus for completion, so that there is an incentive for them to do a really good job, stay until the end of the apprenticeship and really master a skill.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, why not apprenticeships, I asked Scott Jensen?

  • Scott Jensen:

    We see a lot of work-to-training programs that really are apprenticeship, but just aren't called that. These are quicker. So, apprenticeship by any other name is still a good deal.

  • Paul Solman:

    And that, thinks Rhode Island at least, is what they have got.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

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