SMITHFIELD, RI – This fall, Bryant University and the Rhode Island Foundation partnered to convene distinguished global experts and leaders for a series of virtual panel discussions on the “Paths to Recovery: Strategies for getting back to work and to a better future.”
Capping the series on Dec. 9, Bryant University President and renowned economist Ross Gittell, Ph.D., welcomed Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi, Ph.D., and New York City Deputy Mayor for Strategic Initiatives J. Phillip Thompson, Ph.D., for a discussion on “The Challenges Ahead After an Historic Election.”
Current economic and political landscape
With his city particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Deputy Mayor Thompson believes in the importance of creating space for “dialogue across the political spectrum, across racial groups, across communities” to be better able to understand what’s affecting people’s lives and families.
“In a changing economy, we are preparing students with with skills with competencies that carry over through different economic changes and challenges.”
In this important conversation about the current political and economic landscape and the complex challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zandi noted, “It is going to be a bit of a slog,” with the U.S. economy projected to take about three years to recover, and up to five or six years for Rhode Island.
Warning of a possible “double-dip” recession, Zandi noted the need for policy support from the incoming Administration, as a spike in COVID-19 cases and subsequent shutdowns threaten an economy that was beginning to come back from the initial shock of the pandemic earlier in the year.
Some industries, including technology, professional services, and health care, are experiencing opportunities for innovation and growth amid this year’s downturn. Still, there are wide disparities for other sectors such as travel and tourism and businesses that don’t allow for remote work.
“New England and Rhode Island have a very highly educated workforce and that’s the key to growth and to being able to take advantage of the fast growth in the tech sector,” Zandi noted.
With unemployment nationwide at 6.7% and likely to go higher, “a lot depends, in the next few months, next year, next couple of years, on what lawmakers decide to do or not do,” Zandi said, adding that he is “more optimistic about prospects by this time next year” as vaccines are distributed.
Important role for higher education
“The pandemic really drives the economy right now,” said Gittell. who is focused on the role higher education can play, particularly to help overcome some of the increased disparities and polarization that we have politically and economically in our nation. “In a changing economy, we are preparing students with skills and competencies that carry over through different economic changes and challenges.”
All of the panelists agreed on the importance of education in providing opportunities for young people to find employment, and also to become the critical thinkers and innovators who will create new products, industries, and opportunities.
“We as a nation have a comparative advantage, and that will continue to be the case,” said Zandi. "Of course, that requires highly skilled and educated people” who are able to attend schools like Bryant University.
However, public investment in education, training, and research is required in order to maintain that advantage into the future. “We need to invest a lot more in skills training—especially in critical thinking,” said Thompson. “You still need people to deal with novel situations, who have manual and mental dexterity.”
“We need to invest a lot more in skills training—especially in critical thinking,”
When asked what advice he would give students about how to prepare for the future, he didn't hesitate. “You have to have something to contribute and really focus on that, and don't lose confidence. Don't just Ask, ‘how am I going to fit in to someone else's dream or someone else's company,’ also look inside and say, ‘what do I have to contribute and build on that?’”
Public, private, philanthropic approach to investing in education
As for the cost of investing in education, Gittell and Zandi agreed that a public, private, and philanthropic approach is needed. “This kind of mixed model is effective as long as there's a distribution of educational resources and access that's fair and supports individual advancement and economic opportunity, but also larger society goods,” said Gittell.
Zandi doesn’t think student loans are the way forward in the long term. They “jack up tuitions” and students get on a financial treadmill early on.
“Where you see companies teaming up with local universities and there's a kind of a dollop of public support there to help facilitate that collaboration, that's the kind of thing I think universities like smaller universities and colleges should really be focused on otherwise they're not going to survive.”
Panel series overview and background
This series, as well as the spring inaugural “Pandemic Economics” panel series, have highlighted the importance of these types of conversations in helping to create greater understanding of how individuals, businesses, and communities are navigating the health and safety concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the struggling economy and disparities in access to resources including education.
“Forums that promote an open, critical, and constructive dialogue about the impact and response to the unprecedented covid-19 pandemic are essential for a strong economic recovery,” remarked Edinaldo Tebaldi, Ph.D., Bryant University Economics Professor, and Chair of both the spring and fall panel series.
The importance of dialogue and action
A passionate advocate for creating a “better normal” for all Americans, Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO, Neil Steinberg agrees that education and innovation are critical to success in moving forward. He also emphasizes the importance of action.
"Just do it!"
While acknowledging the value of the dialogue enabled by these forums, Steinberg also cautions audiences on the dangers of thinking someone else is going to solve these problems. “That someone is us,” he said, challenging everyone to step up and be a part of the solution, invoking Nike’s iconic call to action, “Just do it!”