COMMENTARY

Don't overlook rural America for your next great IT hub

Few will disagree that America’s rural communities, jobs, and economies have suffered over the past several decades. Since the recession of 2007-2009, most of the nation’s rural counties have struggled to recover lost jobs and retain their people. Data shows that most of our nation’s rural counties are not growing and are lagging behind urban growth rates for almost every metric. This begs the question: what can we do to change course, and what could be the catalyst for substantive progress for our rural citizens and communities?

Some would characterize the speed of technology change as a cyclone throwing new stuff at us every day. Known more formally as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 4IR is characterized by the growth of the Internet of Things (IOT) and the adoption of cloud computing. These have dramatically altered how the world communicates, not to mention, the frantic changes seen over the past six months due to the global COVID-19 pandemic – forcing even faster change as many shift to remote learning and remote work as the new normal.

So, could this high speed of technology change, combined with the shift to remote learning and remote work, be a potential equalizer for rural communities and those underserved, or will it be yet another punisher, exacerbating the opportunity gap between urban and rural dwellers?

The short answer to the “equalizer or punisher” question is, yes. Yes, the speed of technology change should be and can be a great equalizer for rural job creation. Recent reports indicate that from 2010 to 2017, rural wage and salary employment has grown at an average annual rate of 0.5 percent, compared to 1.8 percent in urban areas. Causal theories for this rural lag include: 1) individuals are too far behind to catch up, 2) a lack of technology aptitude in rural locations, 3) relevant education is too expensive, 4) training is inaccessible, and 5) the absence of high-speed connectivity hinders remote learning and remote work.

Over the past 10 years, I have been fortunate to be part of a growing IT services company that has the majority of our employees located in a rural part of Southwest Virginia. We have grown from a handful of staff to over 400 employees, and we have seen firsthand that the speed of technology change can help solve and/or debunk causal theories 1 through 4 above, as well as, cementing my belief that we must prioritize solving causal theory 5 for our nation’s sake. So, let’s consider these causal theories and the impact of technology change:

Theory 1 – Too Far Behind - Because technology is changing so fast, everyone must learn on an ongoing and routine basis. Whether you are just entering the job market, or you are changing career paths after 20 years, no one now is ever too far behind to catch up. This is true whether you live in a big city or a small town.

Theory 2 – Lack of Aptitude - Technical aptitude, curiosity, and an interest in learning are essential job skills now and basic technical know-how has always been almost a prerequisite for survival in rural America. Whether repairing cars and trucks, running farms, or operating mining and other heavy equipment, these technical aptitudes can be translated to technology-oriented career paths.

Theory 3 – Education is Costly -To accommodate the rapid rate of technological change, technology firms are creating vast amounts of technical education resources that are provided free or at low cost. These course completions provide individuals with highly sought-after technology certifications (for those more experienced) and accreditations (for those less experienced). Industry-leading technology firms as well as new technology start-ups have created open access to an ever-growing selection of technology education.

Theory 4 - Training is Not Available - New public-private partnerships such as VAReady (https://VAReady.org), and private training and reskilling initiatives such as AWS re/Start (https://aws.amazon.com/training/restart/) are bringing training to rural communities. Now more than ever, unemployed Virginians and those displaced from jobs due to COVID-19 need these crucial new skills in order to enter the IT job market. These programs offer a wide assortment of virtual self-paced training, and instructor-led virtual and in-person training with the goal to not only help Virginias get skills for good jobs, but for thriving careers.

According to the World Economic Forum’s, Jobs of Tomorrow report, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is ramping up demand for new skill sets. This transformation affects all segments of the workforce, holding as much power to affect the livelihoods of those in low-skilled employment as it does for those in highly specialized professions. The roles with the highest rate of growth within high-volume jobs include Artificial Intelligence Specialists, Data Scientists, and Customer Success Specialists. Within lower volume jobs, the highest growth is in Landfill Biogas Generation Technicians, Social Media Assistants, and Wind Turbine Technicians. However, the type of opportunities that are set to materialize are also changing fast, in tandem with the evolving needs of the technological and economic context—demanding pragmatic and effective mechanisms to support workers’ transitions to the new opportunities that lie ahead.

The Great Equalizer

The speed of change will be a great equalizer by creating high-tech jobs in rural America if we (our collective society of individuals, educators, employers, and government): a) promote awareness of and assistance from public-sector programs, public-private partnerships, and private-sector training initiatives – which empower individuals to help themselves by enabling them to choose to seek a technology career, b) provide highly-available, educational curricula to train inexperienced and experienced workers – which gives job seekers tangible and attainable objectives including reskilling for those in need, c) describe how technology will be used throughout a technology career path – which gives employees and employers an incremental path forward and acts as a guide to success, and d) ensure high speed Internet access across the country– which gives the necessary connectivity to allow for remote learning and remote work even for those in very rural locations.

The speed of change will be a punisher for rural communities if we do not coordinate policies and programs at the federal, state, and local government levels while also synchronizing with initiatives by our educators, employers, and not for profit organizations as we need to align and reassess initiatives and their results.

As we all accept this new normal, adjusting to remote learning and remote work new habits are forming which include where people live and were jobs are located, so promotion and education alone will not level the urban/rural playing field nor will only providing career paths and high-speed Internet; however, coordinated progress will drive the creation of technology jobs in rural America, will help America’s rural counties grow again. The time for these actions is now.

About the Author

Brendan Walsh is the senior vice president of partner relations for the 1901 Group. He supports business development efforts and the establishment of strategic business alliances.

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