One reason that tech jobs are seen as promising for local economies is because of an idea known as the “multiplier effect”: For every one high-tech job created, three to five additional jobs are created locally. And since tech jobs offer an income that is more than twice the national average, that means that more investment in a tech workforce can lead to greater opportunity for rural households, and entire communities as a whole. 

But to date, most of this growth has benefited larger metropolitan areas. What types of actions can local leaders in rural places take to help grow tech talent and employment — and what concrete strategies can they build? 

The Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) investigated answers to this question over the course of a year-long research project, funded through the generosity of Ascendium Education Philanthropy. This work, which took into account labor market data analysis, surveys, and interviews with participants in tech ecosystems across the country, brought to the surface a number of significant takeaways about rural employers and rural adults’ interest in tech, which we explored in our first two blog posts.

This final blog in the series offers four recommendations of actions that local leaders can take when it comes to growing a rural tech workforce. 

Who are “local leaders”?

In conversations about economic development, the term “leader” is thrown around quite often. But it is important to understand the specific types of professionals who have a stake, or should have a stake, in rural tech-based economic development on the local level. When we say “local leader,” these are the types of people and agencies we are referring to:

    • Economic development agencies 
    • Regional planning officials and agencies 
    • Local chambers of commerce 
    • Workforce development professionals 
    • Municipal and county elected officials
    • Higher education officials
    • K-12 public school leaders
    • Philanthropic leaders

No. 1 – Encourage local training providers to offer learners career support and connections to employers.

When local training providers design programs that give learners the chance to directly interact with local employers, and then dedicate staff time to helping learners land good jobs, it makes it more likely that newly trained tech workers will have the desire and ability to stay local. In our interviews, tech workers and learners highlighted how influential these types of connections to employers have been in their career development — enabling them to learn practical skills, get familiar with the practices that dominate the tech field, and also to build relationships with employers that can lead to job opportunities.

For example, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the Code Labs program matches learners with a local employer during the last four weeks of their 20-week training program, and learners get to be embedded in real workplaces projects, while also building relationships with local employers. 

In Statesboro, Georgia, Southern Automated Logistics and Technology (SALT) runs an apprenticeship program with Georgia Southern University in which students spend at least one semester working directly with a local employer, gaining exposure to skills that employers use on a daily basis and making real-world connections. 

(For more information on SALT and Code Labs, see the case studies in our full report.)  

No. 2 – Identify where there is untapped potential for tech employment in the region.

Our labor market data analysis revealed that rural employers in non-tech industries could be hiring over 81,000 more tech workers if they were hiring at the same rates as the national average for those industries. 

As described in our first blog, local leaders need to understand the data about their local labor markets in order to identify where there is room for growth. A valuable data source and tool to understand rural tech employment trends is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey. Employment under the category “computer and math occupations” offers insight into the presence of 21 different types of tech jobs across rural economies. This type of data can be used to see which industries are currently employing tech workers. 

In addition, local leaders need to better understand the needs of the employers who are most important to their local economy. Surveying, interviewing, and convening local employers can help gain insight into the tech talent needs at individual firms, and can help identify obstacles and opportunities to grow local tech employment.

No. 3 – Identify industry leaders and employers who are willing to partner with local institutions on non-traditional tech training programs.

There are a growing number of industry-driven tech-training programs emerging in rural communities that focus on providing practical skills and software development work experience to learners. This is something that traditional classroom programs often lack. The more non-traditional programs, which tend to be shorter-term and lower-cost than those offered at higher education institutions, make it more feasible for learners who face time and income constraints to begin tech training and transition into the tech field. 

And when training providers can get insight from industry professionals and employers on the types of skills that their companies need they can tailor training programs to best serve the needs of learners and the broader rural economy.

In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Codefi has done significant outreach to employers, and when health tech company Vizient analyzed options for how to expand its tech operations, it ultimately decided to invest further in the Cape Girardeau area in part because of the Code Labs connection. Vizient has since grown roughly a third of its tech team through the Code Labs program by hiring on those learners who had apprenticed with them. 

It is unlikely in rural areas that one or two employers could generate enough demand for certain positions to create a whole new training program, so it is important to aggregate demand across a few employers and industries and bring them into collaboration to make the most impact. A great example of this type of collaboration is the Central Wisconsin Information Technology Alliance (CWITA) in Portage County, Wisconsin, which spearheads conversations among employers to identify common challenges and desires around tech jobs.

No. 4 – Increase the visibility of the local tech community through both virtual and physical spaces.

Our research revealed that nearly 60% of rural adults express interest in tech work — but the people most likely  act on this interest are the ones with a greater awareness of local tech opportunities and enough exposure that they’ve begun to see the career possibilities for themselves.

Local leaders need to make tech work and tech workers visible in the community by sponsoring tech meetups, networking, and professional development events. 

These activities should be designed to build connections and relationships, build visibility, and build knowledge about tech talent and tech opportunities locally — ideally extending into local schools. Coworking spaces have an important role to play here and should become the focal point for convening remote tech workers and other key businesses and stakeholders in the community.

In Statesboro, the downtown innovation space was created through a partnership with the city’s economic development organization and Georgia Southern University, and now also serves as the physical hub for its tech training programs. 

What’s next?

While local leaders play an immense role in supporting the development of the rural tech workforce, federal actors also have a part to play: There must be a concerted national effort to boost employer demand for tech workers and provide resources to tech workforce development.

This has the potential to boost rural economies, and to help people across race, gender, income-level, and geography benefit from the economic mobility that tech jobs can provide. Only then will we be able to achieve shared prosperity made possible by tech employment and tech business growth, and fully leverage the diversity and talent of rural people and places.

For recommendations targeted towards federal policymakers and funders, as well as more stories and analysis about rural tech employment and training, check out our full report.

Interested in learning more about this topic?

The Center on Rural Innovation hosted a webinar to further discuss findings from this report. You can watch  via the link below: