Addressing the Rural Workforce Challenge

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3/31/2022

Rural Workforce ChallengeRunning a business in a rural area comes with some wonderful perks, such as lower crime rates, beautiful scenery to enjoy and a sense of community connection that differs from urban areas.

However, it also comes with some unique challenges for workforce development. These can include a lack of access to broadband internet, rural “brain drain,” a lack of diversity, and limited access to educational advancement opportunities. Additionally, there may be challenges with community resources, such as transportation, childcare, health care and housing. Although every community is different, there are still best practices supported by research and demonstrated solutions that can be considered to support and enhance rural workforce.

There have been multiple research reports published on rural economies and workforce. The Investing in America’s Workforce initiative held listening sessions and conducted extensive research. The focus of the initiative was to shed light on workforce challenges and opportunity, with rural issues included. The research identified stakeholder strategies to build stronger rural economies. Building off of the research and listening sessions from a few years back, a recent report entitled Strengthening Workforce Development in Rural Areas by Ashley Bozarth and Whitney Strifler, was published by the Federal Reserve.

AEM's Workforce Solutions Toolkit provides easy digital access to workforce best practices designed empower your organization regardless of size, resources, location or sector. Learn more.

Current Outlook

In summary:

  • One out of every four businesses located outside metro areas struggle to find qualified workers, compared with one out of six in metro areas.
  • Adults 65 and older average 25% of rural populations, versus 19% in metro areas.
  • White, non-Hispanic adults age 16 and older make up about 82% of the population in nonmetro areas, compared to 60 percent in metro areas.
  • The vast majority of counties with persistent poverty, where more than 20% of the population has been living in poverty over the past 30 years, are located in nonmetro areas.
  • 40% of nonmetro renter households and 21% of nonmetro owner occupants spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.
  • 58% of rural census tracts in the United States have limited or no access to quality childcare.
  • In rural areas, the overdose rate exceeded metropolitan rates in 2015.
  • Rural residents comprise 57% of the population in neighborhoods with no broadband access, but only 15% of the country’s total population.

What Can Be Done

To address rural workforce issues, companies need to be willing to think beyond their own needs by connecting and investing in their communities. One report encouraged companies to approach rural workforce development with a quasi-public good approach. The systemic challenges faced by rural business require a willingness to collaborate with key community stakeholders in a way that encompasses the five broadly categorized best practices below. These are robust strategies that require a community focus and long-term mindset. Organizations like economic development corporations or chambers of commerces often lead these initiatives. Lending support, at whatever level, will contribute to a community’s success and a stronger available workforce.

Rural Workforce Strategies

Advisable strategies include the following.

  • Connect youth and adult workers with education and training programs that relate directly to existing and burgeoning industry sectors. -- A critical piece of the rural workforce puzzle is ensuring that the limited educational programs available in rural settings match the skill and labor needs of the community. It is important that programs create clear career pathways from school to employment. Presenting these pathways to both youth and adult learners is critical. Funding career technical education (CTE) can and should be supported through both public and private agencies. These connections are best supported through industry education partnerships.
  • Support economic diversification initiatives that increase economic resiliency. -- Many rural communities have one or two anchor businesses that drive the economy. Losing one of those key industries can put a community at risk. Diversification of business size and type can help stabilize the impact of potential losses. This diversity also paves the way for attracting workers along the entire skill spectrum. Understanding this dynamic while contributing to a collaborative effort makes sense.
  • Create community amenities that improve the quality of life in order to attract and retain workers. -- Rural employers face a duality when recruiting and retaining employees: the challenge of disproportionate rural poverty and reduced educational access, and the opportunity to entice additional workers who are looking to experience abundant natural resources or a community experience that differs from urban areas. These challenges and opportunities give rural employers the ability to leverage benefits beyond wages while building their workforce. Employers should articulate their area’s unique benefits when posting positions, as it can be very effective (especially if they are targeting a specific audience).
  • Support community development efforts focused on reducing common rural barriers including transportation, housing, childcare, health care, and broadband. -- When willing people are held back from working by issues such as transportation, housing, and lack of childcare, businesses will need to ask themselves whether it is more expensive to invest in solutions or suffer the loss of production capacity. Rural communities also disproportionately lack quality broadband coverage which, in today’s world, is an expectation of workers looking to relocate. Businesses may not want to take these issues on themselves, but engagement in community efforts to address these issues directly benefits workforce recruitment and retention.
  • Collaborate across the public, nonprofit, and private sectors to align workforce development, economic development, and community development goals. -- Rural communities, businesses, and economies face unique challenges that require community stakeholders to work together to overcome. Learn more about how communities can come together and create success by viewing the resources in the Educational Partnership.

Learn more in the AEM Workforce Solutions Toolkit.

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Agriculture & Forestry, Workforce Strategies

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