By John White and Betty Hale
Many challenges have contributed to the hollowing out of rural communities and the economic decline of distant towns in Appalachia and other rural areas throughout the nation. Revitalization depends on increasing the education and skill levels attained by rural youth and adults to develop a more robust and resilient workforce prepared to meet the demands of today’s economy. There is so much more education systems, the workforce system and employers can do—working in partnership—to be catalysts for the renewal of rural communities and economies.
This summer, we traveled to the small Appalachian town of Pikeville in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. We joined a few hundred education and workforce professionals at the “Earning and Learning: Pathways to Prosperity” conference hosted by the Appalachian Education & Workforce Network, an initiative based at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) and supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
The conference highlighted promising and successful strategies used by educators, workforce developers and their nonprofit partners to prepare youth and adults for increased participation in post-high school education and workforce training opportunities and, ultimately, the job market. Conference participants also had the opportunity to join two focus group discussions focused on the difficulties facing rural communities trying to develop stronger connections between the education and workforce systems.
Focus group participants from across the region agreed that the lack of education and skill development after high school are persistent challenges to entrepreneurship and economic development. They also agreed that the region must increase participation in postsecondary education as well as degree and/or credential attainment.
Higher education and degree and credential attainment are gateways to the middle class and increased prosperity for individuals and communities. People in rural communities are likely to be high school graduates. But, for far too long, rural people ages 18-29 have been the least likely to enroll in colleges and universities and the most unlikely to persist to achieve degree attainment.
The focus group discussions emphasized the communication challenge behind the words “college degree.” Participants insisted that any references to degrees and college must include two-year community and technical college degrees, job training certificates, industry-recognized credentials, apprenticeship completion, and other career training programs in addition to four-year university degrees.
To change this paradigm, conference participants zeroed in on the need to address insufficient college and career advising in many rural high schools. According to the Brookings Institution, “the student-to-counselor ratio in rural schools is lower than in urban schools (380 vs 499), but is substantially higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of 250 students per school counselor.” The problem goes beyond general counseling. It is the lack of college and career advising that contributes to misperceptions about the jobs and careers that require a four-year degree, two-year degree, industry certification, apprenticeships, or other workplace and job training programs.
Postsecondary leaders at the community college and university levels also identified a misalignment between PreK-12 education systems and industry needs in rural areas. “Students are not coming out with the right skill set; skills are not aligned to what industry actually needs,” said an educator at the conference.
To overcome this challenge, school and college administrators agreed with the need for asset mapping in their areas to identify current and future economic opportunities. A community college administrator from southern West Virginia said asset mapping was performed in their area more than five years ago with help from the ARC, and the mapping probably needs to be updated to reflect changes in the job market.
Focus group participants also pointed to the teacher talent pipeline, drug addiction and poverty as crises that have an impact on education and the workforce in their communities. Some isolated, high-poverty rural schools have no applicants for higher-level math, science, and other teaching positions, while other schools do not have the funds or the staff to provide more advanced curricular offerings such as Advanced Placement courses and dual credit classes.
An administrator from West Virginia State University (WVSU) said fewer education majors are applying for foreign language programs, leading to the closure of some of its foreign language classes. But, another participant from WVSU described meaningful partnerships with employers and philanthropic partners to support teachers at a high-poverty elementary school in her area as a reason for optimism.
An attendee from the organization that administers Tennessee’s financial aid programs―the East Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation―described the power of partnerships in the state. The Tennessee work ethic diploma is a workforce readiness credential earned by high school seniors who receive preference for job interviews with partnering employers if they meet all other qualifications of the job posting.
The conference reinforced the often heard and written recommendations for improving education and workforce opportunities and outcomes: work together, develop partnerships, and collaborate. Implementing these recommendations is easier said than done. However, illustrative partnership initiatives showcased at the conference―industry-community college apprenticeship programs in Alabama, registered apprenticeship program for high school students in Kentucky, and the Simulated Workplace Program in high schools across West Virginia―confirmed that working partnerships make a difference.
Harnessing the resources of the education and workforce systems and working together is the best pathway to prosperity. In fact, attendees agreed that post-high school education attainment rates increase in Appalachian areas where partnerships exist between PreK-12, secondary and higher education, and the workforce. The resulting workforce is stronger and the communities are positioned for greater success in the future.
John White is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2013). Betty Hale is the Leadership Mentor with the Appalachian Education and Workforce Network and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership.