Digital economies in rural America

The “next big thing” and Silicon Valley often seem to go hand in hand. Major coastal metro areas have driven much of recent tech innovation, from social media platforms to software startups to smart medical devices.

But the digital economy stretches far beyond Silicon Valley, influencing every job type and geographic area. Digital skills are in high demand, and this century’s workers will have to be ready — including those living in rural America who have too often been left out of the nation’s growing digital economy.

Earlier this year, we at the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) partnered with Udacity to launch the Future Is Digital Challenge, an initiative focused on training rural Americans interested in developing new skills to help them participate in the nation’s growing digital economy. We opened this opportunity to residents living in our Rural Innovation Network communities and provided 300 scholarships to participants interested in completing Udacity Nanodegrees in either Business Analytics, Digital Marketing, or Front End Web Development.

We’re just finishing the first phase of this program where participants learned beginner skills and had to pass a foundational course assessment. Those who passed are moving on to the Nanodegree program and will graduate with the skills and knowledge needed to pursue an entry-level job in a corresponding field.

It’s undeniable that tech is the wave of the future. In the past year, 307,000 new tech sector jobs were added in the United States. Digital jobs are the second-fastest growing industry in the country, and wage growth in tech is the highest of any industry.

It’s also true that rural communities have not shared in its benefits: Though rural workers make up 15% of the workforce, they represent only 5% of tech employment. Many of the industries facing devastating losses due to automation are overrepresented in rural economies. And, while 80% of venture capital goes to just five metro areas, less than 1% goes to rural areas.

Recent changes in the American workforce, though, such as the shift to remote work and the increase in rural broadband, are laying the groundwork for more digital economy employment and entrepreneurship in America’s small towns.

One core component of expediting that inclusive growth to rural America is to address the digital skills gap. There are currently more than 700,000 unfilled tech jobs in the United States, and that number is only expected to grow because many potential employees do not have the necessary skills. Expanding access to tech training programs is a high-impact way to help employees and employers alike.

Building an inclusive economy

The Future Is Digital Challenge was a major effort by CORI to accomplish that goal. We believe identifying and helping rural workers of all backgrounds move up the rungs of the digital skilling and employment ladder is essential in closing the rural tech gap while also closing the gap in tech job openings.

Through the Future Is Digital Challenge, our network communities enrolled more than 700 learners in Udacity’s foundational course. We look forward to witnessing how it supports learners through the next phase of the challenge as they continue to gain new skills and knowledge.

Building a geographically inclusive economy with strong technology sectors in small towns will require a holistic ecosystems approach. Digital skilling programs are a crucial ingredient, and we are thrilled to initiate this challenge and support other efforts across the country to connect rural Americans with the skills they need to succeed in these uncertain times.

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