The untapped potential of America's rural workforce

The untapped potential of America's rural workforce
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According to last month's jobs report, the labor market remains unbearably tight, with the unemployment rate virtually unchanged in the last year at 3.5 percent. Employers have, in turn, grown accustomed to seemingly endemic skills gaps as executives warn that a waning supply of talent in high-demand fields poses risk to economic growth. And in recent weeks, indicators of a so-called Goldilocks economy have been offset by ominous signals of doom on the horizon. 

Looming economic signs of distress may come as less of a surprise to rural America, which hasn’t shared equally in the prosperity of the last decade. Since the Great Recession ended, the United States has experienced a remarkable rebound. But nearly half of the net increase in new businesses took place in just two cities: Washington, D.C., and New York. According to the Brookings Institution, half of all employment growth since 2010 has occurred in just 20 metropolitan areas, limiting progress to one-third of Americans. Rural communities, where 1 in 5 Americans now live, are being left behind. Since 2001, they have accounted for less than 3 percent of national job growth. 

It’s clear that much of America has been shut out of this prosperous period.

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While it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the polarization of job creation and economic opportunity, there are fresh signs that rural America may be able to provide precisely the reservoir of talent that we need to power the next wave of economic expansion. And these few but promising examples can serve as models as to how the country can bridge the divide between the untapped talent of rural America and the industries that are reshaping the workforce.

Many rural areas are struggling to recover from the loss of once-booming industries in manufacturing and coal-mining. Educational attainment is lower in rural communities, where students are now more likely to graduate from high school than in previous decades, but less likely to go to college than their counterparts in the nation’s cities and suburbs. According to one recent study, the college completion rate for students from the Appalachian region is 23.2 percent, compared to 30.3 percent nationally. What’s worse, young and educated residents often move away to larger cities, exacerbating an already troubling decline in population.

The good news is that a confluence of forces, from a tight labor market to new modes of training, may soon unlock the potential of a rural talent pool that can help employers address some of their most vexing skills gaps. Short-term training programs have exploded in popularity in recent years, and while coding bootcamps are perhaps the most well-known of such programs, rural areas are seeing investments in bootcamps focused on areas like manufacturing and welding. Advances in technology are now allowing for online, blended and work-based learning models that can help millions of learners in “education deserts” earn credentials. Virtual apprenticeships are growing in popularity, including in areas like marketing, computer science and even medical coding.

As remote learning increases, so should opportunities for remote work. With unemployment reaching record lows while 7.5 million jobs remain open across the country, businesses are struggling to find skilled workers. Companies would be wise to turn their attention to rural America to help fill these talent gaps and to further embrace the already growing trend of telework. The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, for example, recently partnered with Teleworks USA to find remote work for 1,000 rural Kentucky residents, bringing $25 million in new annual wages to the region. Unfortunately, many rural areas have long lacked the technological infrastructure necessary for such initiatives, but that, too, is changing — albeit slowly

Small towns like Vineyard, Utah, show just how dramatically rural areas can transform in ways that reflect what is largely otherwise taking place in big cities. Since 2010, the town’s population has increased by more than 8,000 people. By 2025, Vineyard – which, less than a decade ago, was home to just 139 people – will likely see its population grow by another 37,000 residents. This transformation is rooted in the state’s booming technology industry and demonstrates how today’s in-demand tech jobs do not need to be limited to the country’s urban centers. 

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In Iowa, the state’s Future Ready Iowa initiative partnered with the city of Jefferson, Iowa Community College, area K-12 schools, and coding and software development firm Pillar Technology to launch a program that develops tech workers that will fill local talent needs in the region and throughout the state. Iowa’s STEM Advisory Council also gives annual awards to partnerships between businesses and schools, including work-based learning programs located in rural communities. Training and other educational programs are key to developing rural talent, as are partnerships with local businesses, organizations and governments. 

As the economy continues to grow, it is vital that rural America is not left behind. Providing those living in rural areas with the skills and opportunities they need not only to survive but thrive in today’s rapidly changing world of work is both an economic and moral imperative — and one that will require embracing new ways of learning, training and working.

Marie Cini is president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a national nonprofit that works with colleges, employers and workforce organizations to advocate for and support learning opportunities for adult learners.