Nicholas A. Mattiello & M. Teresa Paiva Weed
In a recent commentary in these pages, engineer Andrew Aitkin, retired vice president at New England Power Co., provided several compelling reasons why Rhode Islanders should support the $125 million higher education facilities bond referendum that will appear on the November 4 ballot (URI engineering upgrade will boost R.I., October 8). Aitkin, who now lives in Florida, exhorts voters: “Nothing can do more to improve the Rhode Island economy than this bond authorization. URI engineering is the real deal. Don’t let this opportunity get away from you.”
When Aitkin graduated from URI in 1967 with a degree in Chemical Engineering, the quality of the University’s engineering classrooms and laboratories was consistent with that of other top engineering schools around the country.
It might surprise you to learn that those facilities have remained unchanged for at least 50 years. While URI engineering students use sophisticated equipment in their classrooms and labs, the last upgrade to College of Engineering buildings was made in 1963.
In the last legislative session, we worked together to pass a number of bills aimed at addressing two separate but related challenges: an inability of unemployed Rhode Islanders to find jobs fitting their skills, and concerns that the state’s workforce is not prepared for the demands of tomorrow’s economy. Our “Rhode to Work” legislation met with strong success in the General Assembly. Nine of 21 bills were signed into law.
We secured $1.3 million more for the Job Development Fund, which businesses pay into to cover the costs of training workers. We merged the Human Resource Investment Council with the existing Governor’s Workforce Board, making the latter the sole body responsible for coordinating workforce development in the state, allowing us to find and eliminate bottlenecks and silos.
As Speaker and Senate President, we will continue to promote the “Rhode to Work” in the 2015 session. But we have to attack Rhode Island’s persistent economic challenges from more than one angle. We have to do more than pass legislation. We must build on and leverage public-private partnerships between academia and business, between government agencies and corporate leaders. And that is why we are 100 percent behind Question 4.
Consider this: New facilities for the College of Engineering will translate into more than 2,600 jobs in the construction and building trades and in research and teaching, with approximately 1,500 construction and professional service jobs created immediately. The College of Engineering already generates $142 million of economic activity in Rhode Island every year. According to a recent economic impact study, there is no question that a $125 million investment in state-of-the-art engineering classrooms and laboratories will yield exponential returns for our state.
URI College of Engineering students typically have jobs waiting for them when they graduate. They are in demand by Rhode Island’s top companies, from Amgen, Hope Global and Hexagon Metrology to FM Global, Teknor Apex , Taco and Toray Plastics (America) Inc. In fact, more than 4,000 engineering graduates are employed in Rhode Island today. A full 90 percent of the class of 2013 were either employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation. Nearly 70 percent who graduated in 2014 are from Rhode Island. As URI engineers help to build successful Rhode Island companies, a wide variety of other jobs – not just engineering jobs – become available at these companies. The rising tide does lift all boats.
And there is more good news: College of Engineering award-winning faculty bring millions of research dollars into our state. They work on important projects and issues, like clean water and alternative energy sources. Their discoveries lead to patents – more than 70 in the past decade alone.
But URI’s mid-20th century facilities have taken the University as far as it can go in building a 21st century program. In order to remain competitive with other schools for faculty and students, URI must provide classrooms and laboratories that allow for intra-disciplinary collaboration, which in turn leads to the kind of innovations that are the mark of the nation’s truly outstanding engineering programs. As envisioned, the new facility, which will bring most of URI’s engineering programs together under one roof, will create the types of synergies needed for continued breakthrough research and discovery.
We are proud that the General Assembly is among the institutions publicly supporting this bond referendum. We are joined by Governor Chafee, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, and the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, and more than 30 companies that employ URI engineering graduates.
Our choice on November 4 comes into even sharper focus when we look no further than Storrs, Connecticut, a 90-minute drive from URI. The University of Connecticut, one of URI’s chief competitors, is already moving forward on a new engineering and science complex to open during the 2016-17 academic year. Featuring high-tech laboratory space for cross-disciplinary studies like bio-nano engineering, UConn’s engineering facility will position the school as a leader in emerging technologies.
We urge you to visit http://engineering4ri.com/ for more information and stories of College of Engineering success.
Nicholas A. Mattiello is the current RI Speaker of the House and M. Teresa Paiva Weed is the current President of the Senate.
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