Rhode Island launches career catalyst program for green collar jobs

Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training participants clear tree damage

Participants in the Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training program clear tree damage from a wooden bridge at Tefft Hill in 2021. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management by Jeff Arnold.

This story is part of a series and highlights one of the 14 common themes identified in the 2020 regional State Forest Action Plan summary report. The theme for June 2022 is Forest-based Recreation.

A pandemic, a merger and an industry worker shortage all combined recently to create the need for an effective recreation-based “green collar” jobs program in Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management answered the call.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM) Forestry Division has been collaborating with the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA) for the past couple of years on a workforce development program called “Growing Futures.”

The program helps people of all ages launch potential career pathways in green collar jobs such as arborist/tree care; farming; fine gardening; garden centers; greenhouses; landscape construction and maintenance; stone masonry; and more. A recent RINLA survey noted there was a labor gap in workers within the industry.

Within this larger program, they have made progress specifically in their Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training program, which has been particularly successful. In this pre-apprenticeship program, trainees receive weekly instruction split between online and in the field.

Participants have been training and working to support recreation infrastructure on state-owned forestlands. The trainees clear trails, build and repair bridges, and clear brush and hazards for Arcadia State Management Area recreational users. The project, which supports hiking, mountain biking, equestrian activities, hunting and motorcycle use, contributes to the Rhode Island State Forest Action Plan Priority 3: Enhancing Public Benefits from Trees and Forests.

“The program came at a time when COVID created an influx of users to our management areas,” said TeeJay Boudreau, Rhode Island State Forester and Deputy Chief of Forestry at DEM. “It has been a lifesaver in terms of getting work completed to handle the increased recreational usage of our land.”

Jeff Arnold, the RI DEM District Resource Manager, has led this program singlehandedly from its inception and built it from a concept to success, according to Boudreau.

The Career Catalyst program was especially helpful in filling job vacancies where they were needed, Arnold said, adding that it is an industry that has been culturally and economically undervalued.

Project funding came from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training’s “Back to Work” and “Real Jobs” grant program. This program includes a youth apprenticeship, and the development of a two-year degree through the Community College of Rhode Island and the RINLA.

The following are some notable accomplishments in 2021:

  • They held four meetings of the two-week Career Catalyst program, with an 80% completion rate. The program had 48 job seeker trainees.
  • 30 companies sought new hire candidates in these green collar jobs.
  • 300 candidate interviews were conducted, resulting in 82 job offers.

Later, in 2022, the program grew to include 11 hands-on supervisory crew leaders who are former trainees and returning employees with the RINLA.

The project worked out very well, Arnold said. “It would have taken me 2 ½ years to accomplish what these programs did in 14 days.” Today, about 65 people participate in the programs.

Arnold said RINLA deserves a share of the credit for this program’ success. “They wrote the handbook for this program and served as a partner in the accomplishment of the program.”

The USDA Forest Service Eastern Region says forest-based recreation contributes to human wellness and local economies. Increased participation in outdoor recreation, in part due to COVID-19, has created natural resource challenges in some places.

Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training participants install devices

Participants in the Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training program install geotextile material and erosion control devices and re-harden the Penny Hill Trail in 2021. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management by Jeff Arnold.

Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training participants make repairs

Participants in the Career Catalyst Pre-Apprenticeship Training program make repairs to an accessible walkway at Tefft Hill in 2021. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management by Jeff Arnold.