In order to grow the rural tech talent pool and get more rural people into tech jobs, we need to understand why, and how, individual people in rural communities actually become interested in and choose to enter the tech field.
Understanding the “why” and “how” is incredibly valuable: It can help employers and training providers identify ways to better foster tech skills development in rural communities, and give aspiring tech workers and learners exposure to how others living and working in rural places made it into the tech field.
Over the past year, the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) delved into research on the tech employment landscape in rural America, made possible through funding from Ascendium Education Philanthropy. In addition to collecting data about employers and training programs, this work sought out the perspectives of rural adults, some of whom work in tech and others who do not (for more on rural tech employers, see our first blog post).
What is a tech job?
Tech jobs refer to jobs in which people help to design, build, and maintain computer hardware and software systems, such as web developers, cybersecurity specialists, and database administrators. These jobs exist both within companies in the tech sector that sell technology products and services, and across all industries that use different sorts of technologies like health care, education, banking, and manufacturing.
Across rural communities, there is a significant amount of interest in tech jobs — and personal connections, exposure to tech work, and awareness of local opportunities are what actually inspire people to enter the field.
What we know: Rural adults are interested in tech work
Through a nationally representative survey and dozens of interviews with rural adults asking about their awareness of and interest in tech jobs and training, we gained some simple but striking insights:
- A majority of rural adults — 59% — are interested in tech work and women are just as likely to find it appealing as men, even though 73% of rural tech workers are male.
- Over 40% of the rural adults surveyed have already engaged in some sort of tech-centered education — primarily through employer-provided training, self-teaching, or an online course.
- And on top of that, over one-third say they are at least somewhat likely to pursue training related to working with computers and software over the next two years.
Tech jobs provide both tangible and intangible advantages, and rural adults currently employed in tech say that they are drawn to these jobs because they like the work, and because they pay well and provide good benefits. One-third of rural tech workers earn more than $100,000 annually, whereas just 10% of rural adults employed outside of tech earn an equal amount.
Many adult learners who came to the field later described being motivated by how rewarding the tech field is due to the ability to continuously create, problem-solve, and learn. Norman Wallace, who transitioned into a tech career in Bulloch County, Georgia, expressed these sentiments: “I was looking for something that I enjoy, but also that can be a more stable source of income and kind of career path.”
The fact that there is a high level of rural interest in tech jobs means that employers and training providers ought to be thinking about strategies to get people the tech skills they need to enter the field. Tech learners across the board described the biggest barriers to entry as the time commitment and cost that it takes to go through training programs — which can be full-time, high-cost endeavors — and local leaders must focus their strategies on making tech accessible and attainable for people across geography, income, and education levels (for examples of inclusive programs, see case studies in our full report).
Personal connections help to spark initial interest in tech
Social capital and personal connections play a strong role in how rural residents first become aware of tech careers.
While a considerable portion of rural tech workers enter into tech jobs as adults following a career transition, there are also many who were interested in tech from a young age. Some people had very direct exposure to tech careers — like seeing a parent work as an engineer or transition into the tech field. “I remember my grandpa wanting to build a computer, and and then watching him do it and it just being very fun — and while I’ve loved technology from a very young age, I don’t think I started programming until I was 19 or 20,” said Josh Vaughn, a tech student at SALT in Bulloch County.
Similarly, Tim Krause, department chair and professor in the Department of Computing and New Media Technologies at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, shared that roughly half of his students ”grew up with someone in their family who they described as a tinkerer, someone who liked to just tear things apart and figure out how they work — and I mean, that’s programming right?”
For others, a love of video games or experimenting with HTML in the early days of platforms like MySpace drew them to want to learn more about coding. This was the case for Bri Grimsley, a first-generation college student and current learner in the Code Labs program in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I started a blog because I had a lot of extra time, and then I started delving into HTML because I didn’t like the way my template looked,” she said. “That’s when I realized, I wonder if I could actually make this a job.”
Having more awareness of local opportunities builds confidence that a tech career is possible
Aspiring rural tech workers report feeling more confident in pursuing a tech career when they are aware of tech employment in their communities. In short, the more visibility there is about local tech opportunities in rural places, the more confident people may feel about their ability to actually take the steps to enter the field.
This was the case for Ashley Lovette, who grew up in a small town in Missouri where she had limited exposure to computers and no formal computer science coursework in school. Several years ago, while living in Nashville, she saw a friend begin coding.
“That was kind of when the light went off for me, and I thought that might be something I would be interested in. So I did my research and let it simmer for a little bit,” Lovette said. Later, while working as a bartender back in Missouri, she learned from her aunt about the Code Labs tech training program run by the nonprofit Codefi. The more she learned, the more she realized how well coding aligns with her natural interest in problem-solving, puzzles, and being creative.
Increasing participation in tech training programs among rural workers requires simultaneously expanding training opportunities and growing demand for local tech talent. As we shared in our last blog post, our research found that rural employers understaff people in tech roles compared to similar employers nationally, often citing lack of local talent.
This creates a vicious cycle in which aspiring rural tech workers see fewer tech jobs in their community, reducing their motivation to pursue training, leading local employers to further outsource tech work or forego tech investments due to lack of talent. Breaking this cycle requires a joint focus on training and increasing tech employment in rural areas.
The importance of visibility
When it comes to growing the tech workforce, these findings highlight the importance of visibility: Exposure to technology and tech work is an important factor in motivating people to pursue tech learning and careers. As one woman who transitioned into tech full-time as an adult noted, “I never really understood that the computer field was an option for me — the only people I knew in the field were middle-aged men.”
By making tech work more visible in rural places — through initiatives like on-site programming at physical coworking spaces, in-person and virtual meetups, and expanding computer science access among younger students — rural communities can tap into the latent interest in tech that already exists. There is great potential to help aspiring tech workers, both those who are fresh into the workforce and those who have been working for 20 years and want to transition, in acquiring the skills, experiences, and connections needed to enter the field.
We encourage you to check out our full report for more detailed case studies, recommendations, and analysis.
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: