While many people enjoy the benefits of today’s thriving economy, this rising tide has not lifted all boats. The Great Recession hit rural communities harder than urban areas and recovery has been slower, according to a report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. Rural economies tend to rely on one or two viable employers, which can leave the community vulnerable to economic upheaval should one of those employers choose to leave or close business within the rural area. The report also notes that rural communities generally have lower education attainment or opportunities than urban areas, and struggle with a lack of public and private investment.
Rural communities are not a monolith; each one has its own unique economic challenges. That being said, three common themes emerge when it comes to obstacles facing the rural workforce; we’ve outlined them below and have also described some steps private and public organizations are taking to address them.
Lack of access to broadband internet
More than 31 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home, severely hindering their ability to know what jobs are available. Not only are they deprived of opportunities to apply to these jobs, they are also unable to apply to jobs that provide remote working opportunities.
Improving access to broadband in rural communities will require collaboration from public and private sectors. According to Alvarez Technology Group, an information technology company, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is driving communication reform in rural areas in partnership with the Universal Service Fund (USF) and now wants to expand the objectives of the USF to include broadband as part of their focus. And through their Airband Initiative, Microsoft is working with rural broadband providers to help close the digital divide and provide access to 2 million rural Americans by July 2, 2022.
Unfortunately, many rural communities are near broadband fiber optic lines, but don’t have access. This is the case in Nucla, Colorado, where Carla Reams, a Skillful manager heading the organization’s Skillful West End Project provides career support to displaced workers in the area. “We have broadband access for isolated parts of the town, but we need everyone connected in order to find work; for now, much of our network consists of the services provided through Skillful, the Montrose Workforce Center, word of mouth, newspapers, and flyers."
Keeping local talent local
Outmigration, a phenomenon also known as “brain drain,” also contributes to rural communities’ economic challenges. Talented young people are leaving their rural communities and moving to urban areas to find career opportunities not available close to home. Brain drain causes more brain drain, as other young workers are less likely to move to an area where there are not many people their age. Outmigration also contributes to lower tax bases, hurting infrastructure, community centers, and public schools. Property values deflate, impeding current older residents from moving out themselves, as whatever money they get from selling their house would likely be insufficient in an economically vibrant area.
To address the root causes of the brain drain phenomenon, the Wharton Public Policy Initiative suggests that policy that encourages young people to return or stay in rural areas. Rural communities can benefit from the skills and experiences these returnees bring. They also recommend encouraging entrepreneurship in rural areas to provide a diversity of jobs in a community.
Employers also have a role to play. If they were to use a competency- and skills-based approach to recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and training, candidates and employees could also help rural communities thrive. By homing in on what skills current residents have and what skills will make them more competitive in today’s labor market, rural communities can invest in their own workforce.
Providing young people with information about all the career paths available to them can also help provide a community with the skills they need to help a small town thrive. While four-year college degrees can help advance a young adult’s career, other paths that involve vocational training, certificates, or modular learning can also provide solid, lucrative career paths.
Automation, artificial intelligence, and other technological advances will hit rural areas hard
As the way we work changes, companies are increasingly relying on automation and new technologies instead of human workers. A new report from the Brookings Institution found that jobs that are vulnerable to automation are more likely to be found in rural towns where there are more jobs that require routine or repetitive work, jobs that are particularly vulnerable to automation. For instance, in Nucla, the New Horizon Mine, a major employer of people in the West End, shut down for good, leaving many without a job.
We need to invest in entrepreneurs that want to build in their communities, so that there are jobs available for the people who choose to stay. In Colorado, the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) has a Rural Development Loan Program, which targets Colorado businesses in select rural communities with populations of less than 25,000. This program aims to encourage businesses to move in rural communities by offering long-term fixed rates of up to twenty years for real estate, 90% loan to value/loan to cost, and no prepayment penalties.
The International Association for Rural and Urban Development (IARUD), is also trying to contribute to the development and progress of rural communities by giving general education to orphans and vulnerable children, vocational training to the young, and household home-making skills to the mothers. The Anschutz Family Foundation is working to increase funding to nonprofit organizations in rural Colorado, and encourages funders to visit Colorado’s rural communities to gain a greater understanding of the issues they face.
The obstacles facing rural communities are significant, but not insurmountable. The economic straits in which many rural towns find themselves are increasingly garnering the attention of national news outlets, policy makers, and the general public.
As this article illustrates, rural communities, government, business, and education will all need to work together to come up with solutions to the workforce challenges facing rural America. That’s one of the reasons why Skillful Colorado, in partnership with the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC), the Montrose Workforce Center, and the Telluride Foundation, launched the Skillful West End Project in 2018. This pilot project seeks to connect local talent to local business in southwest Colorado, ensuring that employers have the talent they need to grow and that job seekers have the skills they need to future-proof their careers and revitalize their communities.