We’re finally making progress supporting rural tech — we can do much more
Rural America wants to be part of the growing tech economy.
We know because rural Americans have told us — in a national survey, nearly 60 percent of rural adults expressed interest in tech jobs and careers, according to a recent report from the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a nonprofit I founded in 2017.
Who could blame them? The digital economy has been a reliable growth engine — expanding 3.5 times faster than the U.S. economy as a whole from 2005 to 2019 — and produces jobs whose median incomes are more than double that of all jobs nationally.
We’ve seen how the COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to the ways in which many rural communities are underresourced to adapt and succeed in the digital age. Places lacking access to broadband are missing out on the power of the 21st-century economy. But the pandemic also proved that when rural America is connected it can support a thriving digital workforce.
Achieving that at scale and overcoming these existing geographic inequities will require more than one initiative can hope to provide. It will take a concerted, multi-faceted effort. Thankfully, Washington is starting to see why this is important.
At a Rose Garden event in May, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris together announced the most significant investment in rural infrastructure in 100 years. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside unprecedented federal funding — $65 billion — for broadband access and deployment. The recent announcement of the Rural Partners Network and talks of establishing a Rural Prosperity Office are further signs that people see potential in rural America, and that after years of decline there is more we can and should do to unlock that potential.
And while broadband is necessary, it is not sufficient for rural communities to participate in the tech economy.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Silicon Valley’s representative in the U.S. House, has been a vocal champion of the need to expand the tech workforce beyond our cities, and makes a compelling case in his recent book, “Dignity in a Digital Age.” He recognizes that upending the current imbalance in where these jobs and wealth are created — last year, more than 97 percent of U.S. venture capital went to startups in urban areas — is critical to revitalizing rural cities and towns where opportunities have dried up. More importantly: He has thoughtful, creative ideas about how national policies can support this.
Since launching CORI five years ago, we’ve seen places doing amazing work to spark innovation and tech job growth when they get broadband and funding to support the tech economy.
After securing funding from the under-publicized Economic Development Administration Build to Scale program, Red Wing, Minn., has become a hub for entrepreneurship and workforce development across an 11-county region with the launch of its E1 Collaborative.
In Ada, Okla., the Ada Jobs Foundation has emphasized the inclusion of Chickasaw and other Native American founders in its initiative to increase the number of scalable tech startups in its community, which exists on Chickasaw Nation territory. Similarly, in Virginia, the Shenandoah Community Capital Fund has started to build a pipeline of female and tech entrepreneurs of color through intentional outreach efforts after recognizing its first accelerator cohort was predominantly white and male.
And in Springfield, Vt., the Black River Innovation Campus leveraged federal funding and the town’s 10-gigabit internet to garner local philanthropic investment from the Vermont Community Foundation to attract scalable tech companies and an accelerator program for founders coming out of Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont. Now it is poised to receive $5 million in government funds to continue its transformation into a multi-use facility that can spark further innovation-based companies.
CORI’s research, sponsored by Ascendium Education Group confirmed that in addition to a majority of rural adults being interested in tech jobs, half of those currently employed in these roles identify as self-taught. This underscores the desire for resilient, good-paying jobs and the fact that in an industry that can recruit based on competencies rather than degrees there are nontraditional paths to these opportunities.
Furthermore, opportunities should be there to meet rural residents’ demands: We found that rural America is home to only half of the tech jobs that one would expect to find based on national tech employment patterns. Of those nearly 250,000 missing tech jobs, more than 80,000 are in the non-tech industries at the core of many rural economies — manufacturing, healthcare, government and banking. Rural employers need to check their own biases and look to their own incredible communities to find and help build the talent to ensure their businesses are profitable and secure.
It is overwhelmingly clear that the era of telling rural people that technology and innovation jobs “are not for them” should be over. Bringing these technology skills and jobs to rural people will be transformational economically. It can serve as the fuel for longer-term tech startups that can accelerate the momentum of this kind of economic development and generate wealth in rural communities. Seeing progress being made at the federal level and a renewed focus on rural prosperity is a sign that things are going in the right direction.
What can be done to harness this momentum? Federal and state programs should prioritize funding for rural coding and IT training programs. Infrastructure funding from agencies such as the Economic Development Administration can be expanded to explicitly include spaces for coworking and training that connect new learners to the increasing number of remote technologists in rural communities. We can offer incentives for employers to provide paid software internships that allow for project-based learning and clear onramps for rural people to enter these tech career pathways.
Technology talent can be found everywhere. And now is the time — we must invest in rural America to ensure rural people can get high-paying, resilient jobs and, in doing so, bring our nation back together in the digital age.
Matt Dunne is the founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.