Workforce development in rural communities

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CED Guest Author

Lisa Stifler is a Research Associate with the Community & Economic Development Program.

Workforce development is a relatively recent term and concept that has developed over the past two decades or so to describe a wide range of activities and policies related to learning for work.  Typically the efforts are aimed at creating and/or sustaining a viable workforce for current and future business and that provide individuals with the opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. 

Workforce development strategies are often developed in response to changes in the local, regional, and/or statewide business climate, a shortage of skilled workers, changes in technology, the loss of jobs, and demographic changes.  Through education, partnerships, support, and financial backing, these efforts can help to improve the skills of workers currently employed, provide skills to unemployed or underemployed workers, educate students on possible future careers, provide sustainable livelihoods, enhance efficiency and productivity of companies, improve the competitiveness of rural regions and businesses, improve financial outcomes of rural businesses, grow the local economy, and spur entrepreneurship.

Nationally, many workforce development efforts have been focused on cities and urban regions, but similar efforts are taking place in rural communities and regions throughout the country.  In North Carolina, workforce development efforts have been part of the state’s policies since before it became such a hot topic nationally.  The NC Community College System, which includes 58 colleges throughout the state, has been providing vocational and workforce education programs since its inception in 1957.  These programs include continuing workforce education in a variety of fields; a Human Resource Development and a CAREER Start program that provides assessment services, skills training, and career development counseling for unemployed and underemployed workers and former Food Stamp recipients, respectively; and career pathways programs.  Many of the courses and career programs have been created in response to workforce needs in a region, such as the programs in wood products occupations, aviation, advanced materials, and sustainable agriculture.  These community college programs are crucial to ensuring the existence of a skilled workforce in rural NC communities.

In Minnesota, West Central Initiative was central in bringing together a partnership of government, business, education, labor, and nonprofit leaders after the region’s leaders realized that data from the 1990 census showed that the rural west central region of Minnesota would be faced with a chronic shortage of workers for decades to come, largely because younger residents were leaving the area and older workers would be retiring.  The partnership worked with local business leaders to determine what would be needed to make the businesses more competitive and profitable and what skills workers would need in order to earn better pay and to help the companies succeed.  The initial efforts were mainly focused on retraining current manufacturing workers but have expanded to provide training and education programs for workers transitioning from other careers and consulting and training services for businesses who want to provide services to their employees.  Between 1992, when the efforts began, and 2008, manufacturing employment nearly doubled in the region, despite statewide and national decreases in manufacturing employment; almost 10,000 of the region’s workers were trained, which represents about 65% of the area’s manufacturing workers; employee turnover dropped; wages increased; and layoffs decreased, with no overall decrease in jobs during the 2000-2001 recession.  Even in the current economy, the area’s unemployment has remained lower than the state unemployment rate.  The area’s leaders attribute the success of the efforts to the alignment of resources, clear goals, and collaboration among the various sectors and groups.

Finally, Southern Good Faith Fund, in Arkansas, successfully ran a local Career Pathways program for more than 10 years before handing the administration of the growing (and now statewide) program to two state colleges.  The program originally started in 1996 as a workforce development program for low-income students with a focus on a career as a Certified Nursing Assistant.  The program now includes career pathways in six career fields which were developed based on work with local employers to target high demand jobs in the region.  The fields are business, education, EMT/paramedic, nursing and allied health, welding, and manufacturing.  For each career field, a general career pathway was created, but they are personalized based on the needs, education and skill levels, and career interests, as well as financial, transportation, and child care situations of the individual.  The pathway includes various levels of noncredit, college credit, certificate, and degree programs, and the learning incorporated into the program is career-specific learning.  The programs also provide for two “remedial instruction” programs for individuals who are not ready to enter the college credit programs part of each pathway, and the remedial programs serve to prepare or transition those students into the college credit programs.  Finally, each student has access to intensive student support services that start with recruitment into the Career Pathways program and continue through job placement and retention.  Career Pathways is now a $12 million program offered throughout the state of Arkansas at all 22 community colleges and three technical institutes.  Not only does the program provide opportunities for low-income students to find jobs in higher paying careers, but it also ensures that the state’s high growth businesses will have access to a trained workforce.

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