Until only a few years ago, Rhode Island was one of few states in the US offering no business incentives to investors. However, faced with severe job loss over the past two decades and often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Massachusetts, the state could not afford to rest on its laurels.
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A 2016 op-ed from the Brookings Institute entitled 'RI needs to exploit its advantages' highlighted some measures Rhode Island could take to turn this around – one being the overhaul of state policy toward business. The authors wrote: “Becoming more competitive matters… the regulatory environment is a repellent to firms and workers with other choices.”
Enter governor Gina Raimondo with a statewide call for key stakeholders to come together: the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce (GPCC), the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, Polaris Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), the University of Rhode Island, local community colleges and many more.
“The prior governor’s office did not believe that incentives were the way to go,” says Laurie White, president of the GPCC, which represents 1100 businesses across Rhode Island. “Ms Raimondo understood correctly that Rhode Island needed a very powerful sweetener in its toolbox: performance-based incentives. Not just handing out dollars, but rewarding jobs being created. Legislative programmes to authorise commerce to enable these incentives and deploy them with a budget that would match – that’s what I am most proud of.”
Sweetening the deal
True to its manufacturing legacy, Rhode Island has committed to initiatives supporting job creation for manufacturers of all sizes. One is the Manufacturing Investment Tax Credit – this provides a refundable credit on a competitive basis for businesses investing in new equipment that helps to create jobs. Another is the Qualified Jobs Incentive Tax Credit, where manufacturers that add five new jobs are eligible to apply for refundable tax credits.
This has paid off. The whopping 17 major investment announcements from private companies in the past year-and-a-half – from companies such as Virgin Pulse, Johnson & Johnson and Priceline’s Agoda – are a testament to Rhode Island’s all-in strategy.
One of these companies is GE Digital, whose new IT office in Providence will hire an initial 100 engineers, data scientists and other young professionals to develop new software applications and drive innovation.
“Since GE Digital did not previously have an office in Providence, the Qualified Jobs Incentive Tax Credits and the First Wave Closing Fund the state secured made it more affordable for us to open an office here,” says Jeff Monaco, GE’s vice-president of digital workplace technology. “The Chamber of Commerce went out of its way to ensure we could make Providence a new home for some of GE Digital’s operations.”
An important player in Rhode Island’s manufacturing landscape is Polaris MEP, a public state-wide entity providing development and training programmes to local manufacturers in vital areas such as digitalisation and lean manufacturing.
“There is a unique merging right now of the legacy manufacturing environment and this public-private relationship between the state and companies looking to grow,” says Christian Cowan, Polaris MEP's centre director.
When Mr Cowan began working at Polaris in 2014 it was engaged with roughly 30 companies a year, providing business improvement and support services. “After I started, for the first time ever in Rhode Island’s history, the state supported us with funding,” he recalls. “It never did that before.
“The governor’s manufacturing initiatives really allowed Polaris to engage with more companies, so last year we worked with 200 rather than the initial 30. That allowed us more outcomes, which all measured in sales impacts, job impacts and costs savings for these companies,” he adds.
Another of Ms Raimondo’s initiatives is the Real Jobs Rhode Island Partnership. Designed for mid-career workers, it creates additional custom workforce training for manufacturers, up-skilling current employees and ensuring a pipeline of talent for the industry.
“We’ve had great discussions with manufacturers and educators about this ecosystem that’s needed; large companies benefit from small companies being around from a supplier standpoint, a talent standpoint, and an IP standpoint,” says Mr Cowan. “It’s really about building that entire ecosystem to make sure there are support systems for both the large and smaller companies, as well as the spaces and programmes for those companies to interact.”
A lesson in growth
Advancements in education are central to the state’s economic growth plans. “We’re going to invest in manufacturing initiatives for our high school students, and we’re going to make it easier for manufacturers to hire and train Rhode Islanders,” Ms Raimondo said in her annual 'State of the State' address.
To meet today’s industry needs, this means advanced technological skills training. Thanks to investments in the governor’s computer science for Rhode Island initiative, CS4RI, Rhode Island is poised to become the first state with computer science classes at every public school.
In addition to CS4RI, the state has launched its P-Tech Manufacturing Alliances programme, which pairs several high schools with local community colleges and then with partner employers offering mentorship and career exposure opportunities.
“We’ve also been collaborating with our public and private universities to create new computer science minors,” says state secretary of commerce Stefan Pryor. “This is producing more college graduates with cross-disciplinary knowledge, while the focus on computer science skills makes them great job candidates.
“We have had a terrific run of luck with one of our exports, which is talent, but we’d like to retain much more of that talent.”
The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation has introduced its unique Wavemaker fellowship programme, which allows partial student debt forgiveness for qualified candidates working in 'Steam' fields in Rhode Island – science, technology, engineering, art and design and mathematics. This commitment of public funds to keeping the best and brightest in Rhode Island after graduation ensures a robust talent pool for growing businesses in the state.
“There are many industry partners focused on making sure middle and high school kids are aware of the benefits of manufacturing, and that manufacturing is not dark, dirty and dangerous anymore. It’s highly technical,” says Mr Cowan. “So there’s really a strong push to make sure that pipeline of talent is there for the long haul in Rhode Island.”