With support from Brown, SkillsRI connects job-seekers with new, gainful employment opportunities
Brown University and other top employers in the state are helping Skills for Rhode Island’s Future match unemployed residents with meaningful job opportunities and paths toward economic mobility.
With a new job as a cashier at Brown, Lincoln resident James Payne enjoys greeting students in the main dining hall.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University]— Nine months ago, James Payne reached a breaking point. For nearly two years, he averaged 60- to 90-hour work weeks as a convenience store manager, routinely filling shifts left empty by staff shortages or covering sick calls from the store's associates. When he left work, he was on-call, day and night, to meet the needs of the mart’s 24/7 operation.
"We were understaffed and overwhelmed," Payne said. "As the store manager, I was the last line of defense. If we didn't have workers, I stayed and worked above what I was already scheduled. It was a lot of pressure all the time."
The long hours and constant stress exhausted him emotionally, mentally and physically, and it absorbed the energy and time he had at home in Lincoln, Rhode Island, with his wife and three children.
"It would be impossible to see my family, and I was run down when I did."
After more than 30 years working in various hospitality, customer service and retail roles, Payne decided to make a change. He left his role as a store manager in hopes of working in a new field — but mostly to find a job opportunity with an improved work-life balance, flexibility and strong company culture.
Guided by a friend's referral, Payne contacted Skills for Rhode Island's Future (SkillsRI), a nonprofit that matches unemployed and underemployed Rhode Islanders with local employers. Within days, Payne said, he felt like he had "a free personal job coach" aiding with each step of the job-hunting process, from reviewing available listings to updating his resume and preparing for an interview. All of which he last did three decades ago.
Roughly a month later, Payne had a new job. His new employer? Brown University.
A new job agency model
Challenging the traditional staffing agency model, SkillsRI is demand-driven and works to meet the hiring needs of employers by customizing talent development services and workforce training for job seekers. The program — which started in 2016 through a collaboration between Rhode Island's Department of Labor and Training and the Greater Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce — aims to close the state's workforce skills gap and promote local economic development by connecting residents with meaningful employment opportunities.
To do that, SkillsRI recruiters serve as expert sources for open jobs with local employers that are committed to hiring local talent. To match candidates with vacancies, recruiters act as career counselors to support individuals through the job search process — everything from assessing skills to defining career interests, lifestyle and salary needs. They also offer help with resume writing and coaching for interviews and serve as advocates for job candidates throughout the hiring process.
"The SkillsRI program is impressive," Payne said. "They talked with me every day. When I expressed interest in Brown, they went that extra step to describe the job openings on campus. They followed my progress, from the initial application to the interview to the job offer."
The placement process prioritizes matching the right candidates to the right opportunities, targeting long-term job satisfaction and success, said Valeria Reyes, a senior recruiter for SkillsRI.
"It's important to get a job, but it's more important to like the job," Reyes said. "We work to help each individual find a job where they can see themselves staying for the long-term. Our number one goal is to serve them."
Matching residents with quality work opportunities and a track for upward mobility is a feat accomplished only with the state's major employers, said Tom Streicher, vice president of client and career services at SkillsRI: "We're placing over 1,000 people a year in new job opportunities, and we can't do that without our employer partners,” he said.
The organization partners with 236 corporate and community organizations statewide, including CVS Health, General Dynamics Electric Boat, Fidelity, Bank of America, Yushin, Amgen, Worthington Industries, and Lifespan. Through employer partnerships, since 2016, SkillsRI has placed nearly 11,000 Rhode Islanders in jobs, job-training programs, or paid internships. In 2021, the annual wage earnings for SkillsRI job placements totaled more than $55 million.
As a vital anchor institution and one of the largest employers in Rhode Island, Brown University was one of the nonprofit's first employer partners. The University averages more than 1,000 open jobs each year in everything from Dining Services to academic roles to Facilities Management. Yet even more important is Brown's commitment to SkillsRI's vision to transform lives through meaningful employment and economic mobility, said Nina Pande, the program’s executive director.
“The stigma around being unemployed prior to the pandemic was devastating,” she said. “There was an assumption that unemployed meant lazy or non-skilled. For us, it’s big when you have an institution like Brown say, ‘no, unemployed means unemployed.’ The University is willing to invest in people who come with labels. That’s the power of the work that we get to do together.”
Since 2017, Brown has hired more than a dozen residents referred through SkillsRI, many in food service and custodian roles. Both Dining Services and Facilities Management are critical operations on campus and employ many hundreds of Rhode Islanders; and each unit is recognized as a leader in the industry for competitive hourly wages, regular pay increases, employee benefits and opportunities for advancement.
Since his start in April as a cashier in the Sharpe Refectory, the largest dining hall on campus, Payne has witnessed firsthand the number of growth opportunities available at Brown. "I get emails almost every day about different positions around campus that have opened up," he said. "Management is very supportive, and they communicate when there is something out there that they believe you might be interested in."
Payne started his new job as a cashier in April. Both Dining Services and Facilities Management are critical operations on campus and employ many hundreds of Rhode Islanders.
Pawtucket resident Ancilla Akimpaye began working at Brown as a night custodian after leaving her previous role as a hospital housekeeper. Unlike other roles, the job at Brown offered her a regular schedule that would allow her weekends off to attend church and spend time with family. When she found the night shift difficult, her supervisor offered her an opportunity to change to a daytime position.
"It was hard for me to work at night, but then I spoke with my supervisor, and she was able to help me switch to the afternoon shift," Akimpaye said. "Brown is a good place to work, and I have a great supervisor and many friends here."
Brown also offered Akimpaye higher wages and better benefits compared to previous roles, she said. The University's comprehensive benefits package, which includes subsidized childcare and free access to public transportation, addresses many obstacles faced by the SkillsRI job candidates, said Dariela Delgado, director of client services at SkillsRI.
"The challenges we continuously hear from our community are childcare and transportation," Delgado said. "The benefits Brown offers to employees is one of the major attractions for our candidates, and it's part of what makes Brown a unique employer partner."
Creating a talent pipeline
The work led by SkillsRI to pair thousands of candidates with open opportunities also serves Rhode Island students. The organization’s internship programs match high school and college students to jobs that align with their career interests while preparing them to work in a professional setting and creating a source of local talent. Ten local high school students have worked at Brown as interns through the PrepareRI program, which provides full-time summer internships to rising seniors attending public schools in the state.
Working as an animal care technician assistant at Brown’s Center for Animal Resources and Education (CARE), Kristen Baker, a senior at Barrington High School, said the internship reinforced her pursuit of a career in veterinary medicine. She was one of two interns that CARE hired through the program to support the technicians with daily tasks like mopping floors, emptying trash and stocking PPE, among other tasks.
"The internship helped solidify my interest in becoming a veterinarian," Baker said. "Being in a work environment near others on the same track that I hope to one day follow was amazing, and I loved being engulfed in the field."
The experience was a win for CARE as well. Lara Helwig, CARE's director, said the department regularly hires college and veterinary students for the assistant roles. However, inviting high school students through the PrepareRI program stirred new excitement and energy in the team: "What they didn't necessarily have for knowledge and experience, they made up for in youthful enthusiasm, and that energy was infectious," Helwig said.
Other PrepareRI interns at Brown have worked in human resources and information technology, including Zoe Sekasula, a senior at North Providence High School. Sekasula said that while working as a media services intern supporting classroom technology needs across campus, the internship provided valuable experience and a glimpse of Brown's academic and campus life.
"I visited different classrooms and buildings every day,” Sekasula said. “Walking around campus made me feel like I was just one of the students. I'm a senior in high school, and this is when I am starting the college application process. The internship has helped me think more about what I want to study and where I see myself next year."
With a focus on supporting students from underserved communities, PrepareRI has placed more than 1,700 public high school students into paid internships with employers across the state. Partners like Brown provide students important access to career and academic exploration, Pande said.
"The students get a dual exposure. They get a high-quality employment opportunity but also experience university learning, and that opportunity is not something they can get with other employers — it's unique to Brown."
Commitment to hiring local talent
Elizabeth Scotto, director of recruitment and staffing operations in University Human Resources at Brown, is now working to expand the organization’s reach across campus. She and other UHR leaders have led SkillsRI job candidates to openings in athletics, information technology, mail services, library services and the Warren Alpert Medical School. Roughly 22 percent of SkillsRI referrals convert to full-time job placements at the University, a metric on par with other employer partners. Among the group that has accepted full-time job offers, two-thirds were previously unemployed.
Scotto hopes to grow the number of SkillsRI job placements by generating more awareness for the program across Brown's schools, departments, offices and centers, most of which manage recruiting and hiring independently. Hiring nearby talent builds on the University's commitment to investing in the success of its local community, Scotto said.
"Where we can, it's important that we recruit new staff members from our own backyard,” she said. “SkillsRI helps us do that by actively identifying quality job candidates who match our openings."
While Brown employs more than 4,200 Rhode Islanders, recruiting locally can be a challenge for some roles, Scotto said. Some residents are unaware of the diversity of jobs available on campus and the varying education or experience levels required.
"We have a lot of name recognition in Rhode Island, but because we're an Ivy League institution, we know that some community members might feel hesitant to apply," Scott said. "There is an assumption that we wouldn't consider someone for employment because they lack experience or a college degree, and that's simply untrue."
Approximately 64% of the SkillsRI referrals hired at Brown have a high school education level, and 29% have some college credits completed.
SkillsRI recruiters play a crucial role in helping to educate local residents on the range of job opportunities at Brown while guiding candidates to understand better their employment and education histories and the potential for professional growth in their next role, Streicher said.
"Folks often think Brown only has this one type of job," Streicher said. "We try to talk candidates through those things. We spend a fair amount of time coaching individuals and getting them to understand themselves better before we present them with different opportunities."
Not everyone, however, feels apprehensive about applying to jobs at Brown. Payne requested the University as a potential employer upon his first consultation with SkillsRI, said Reyes, who served as his recruiter. "When I first interviewed him, he wanted to work at Brown, and he knew it was a great school with good benefits."
The job placement at Brown has been a success for Payne: "I'll definitely be on board as long as I can," he said.
After decades working in customer service, Payne enjoys greeting and interacting with thousands of students daily as they enter the dining hall. "I enjoy seeing them and sometimes they share part of their day with me — I love it."
And while a positive work environment, supportive manager and caring campus community are part of his newfound job success, what he cherishes most about his new role at Brown is the clear distinction between his professional and personal time — and especially the opportunity to spend more time with his family.
"I'm not overly stressed and burdened with taking my job home with me — my phone isn't ringing at 2 a.m. anymore," Payne said. "Being able to leave your job at the time clock is really a wonderful thing."