Expanding rural education is crucial for economic and workforce development

Nov 17, 2021

The pandemic has helped shed light on serious gaps in rural broadband access and how these gaps can pose significant challenges for rural education.

Experts from the Academic Development Institute, Appalachian Regional Commission, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and our Child Welfare and Education division discuss how to overcome broadband and educational gaps in rural communities to promote economic and workforce development.

We’ll cover:

  • Understanding the tensions rural students face when contemplating higher education
  • Expanding the occupational opportunities within a rural community while elevating the educational prospects of students
  • Recognizing the importance of broadband accessibility
  • Building strategies for rural communities to promote economic and workplace development 


Jenn Folsom: Hi. This is Jenn Folsom from the ICF podcast here today to talk about rural community caretaking through development—economic development, workforce development. And it's a great follow-up to our discussion with my colleague Caitlin Howley, who's the director of Child Welfare and Education here at ICF, and her co-author, Sam Redding, who's the chief learning scientist at the ADI or Academic Development Institute.

We talked about a month ago about, sort of, the impact of COVID-19 and rural broadband and just some of the real big challenges for rural education, and this is a great continuance of that. So, Caitlin, I'll turn it over to you to say hello and introduce yourself.

Caitlin Howley: Hi. I'm Caitlin Howley. I'm located in Appalachian, Ohio, and I'm delighted to be here. Thanks.

Jenn Folsom: And Sam.

Sam Redding: Sam Redding, and I am speaking to you today from rural central Illinois.

Jenn Folsom: Thanks, Sam. And we are so lucky to have two guests today. We have Ann Thompson, who is the statewide director of Workforce Development at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Ann, say hello.

Ann Thompson: Sure. Good afternoon. This is Ann Thompson. I am calling you from Nashville, Tennessee.

Jenn Folsom: Awesome. And we also have with us today Kinsey Walker, who's a program analyst at the Business and Workforce Development—oh, Business and Workforce Development at the Appalachian Regional Commission or ARC. Kinsey.

Kinsey Walker: Hi, y'all. This is Kinsey. I'm coming to you from Washington, D.C, but originally from West Virginia. So native Appalachian coming to D.C. to serve through this work.

The college conundrum

Jenn Folsom: Great. Well, thank you all for being here today. I know we have so much to talk about. But you know, Caitlin, I'm going to start with you. In the book you co-edited with Sam, you talk a lot about this conundrum that rural young people face when it comes to going to college. What is that challenge for these young people who are thinking about that next step?

Caitlin Howley: I read an article once that's really cleverly titled "When Moving Up Implies Moving Out" that really captures the tension that rural young people feel. On the one hand, they want to pursue educational and career opportunities to stay involved in their lives and to continue their learning.

But often, because there aren't higher education institutions locally, they find that they have to go to college elsewhere. And then once they earn a degree, they then furthermore discover that they might not be able to return to their home communities because there are no jobs that now match their credentials and skill sets. And so they feel this tension between staying and going. And that if they want to pursue their dreams, they might have to leave their hometowns, and that's a real struggle for lots of rural young people.

Jenn Folsom: Yeah. And Sam, you, you know, Cait was talking a lot about this tension and the struggle these rural young people face about not being able to find a job in their field back at home in their hometowns. This suggests that it's important to support students' aspirations and build their communities so that there are jobs for them there—there are jobs for them to come home to after graduation. So you talk a lot in the book about how to help communities begin to do that. Can you tell us what you propose?

Sam Redding: Sure. And Caitlin was citing research, I was kind of reminded of the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and I think kids everywhere face that question at some point when they're about to get out of high school, particularly in rural situations.

The kids are not only thinking, “Where do I go for best occupational opportunities and educational opportunities,” or thinking of, “What kind of place do I want to live?” I'll tell you real quickly about a project we have right here where I am in Central Illinois called Liftoff that's funded by a local foundation where we take kids in 7th grade who might not look like they're on a trajectory for success, and we work with them for five years, and then they can earn college scholarships.

And so we've learned a lot. Most of our work is more national and regional. And being able to work so closely with kids and families at a local level and a rural community, you start to understand, I think, what they face. And there are all kinds of circumstances that kids face.

This year, we were proud we sent a young lady to MIT, which is a pretty big accomplishment coming out of a rural community. And we also sent several kids to community colleges, and some of them are going with the intention of coming back and working on the farm or working in a local construction company, whatever. But other kids have other occupational goals.

Expanding occupational opportunities

I think what we want to do is, educationally, is to know that every youngster is prepared for whatever choice they may make in terms of their occupation and their life. We would also like them to grow up understanding and valuing a rural community, particularly the one they come from, understanding its history, understanding why people are here and like to be here, and the advantages of being here. So I think that places expectations on schools to see that that happens.

What we propose in the book is the fact that it's often difficult for the particular rural community itself, particularly if we're looking at it from school, and you're thinking a rural school or rural district—which is very small and has limited resources—to see how it lifts itself out of this conundrum and how it expands the occupational opportunities within the community, at the same time, it's elevating the educational prospects of its students.

So what we propose is that those who serve rural communities and rural schools, those agencies, those organizations, I'm guessing much like Kinsey's own organization that might be regional or statewide or countywide—in the book, we describe several, particularly countywide collaborations between school districts, but also workforce agencies and social agencies and other types of entities.

And what we propose is that probably this is going to happen most effectively if we can get together, those people, those agencies that are serving the communities and putting them through a pretty rigorous examination of how they work together, what they do, how they engage those communities, and how they benefit them.

And so that is what we proposed as a practical path, not that a local community couldn't look at the same items and same considerations to see how it's doing and what it could do, but we think that we're really trying to leverage the resources of the agencies at regional and state levels or county levels that are serving the more local community.

Incoming development

Jenn Folsom: Got it. And you know, Ann, that makes me want to turn it over to you from an economic development perspective—how do we make sure that this MIT grad has a job to come back to, that there's something there for her? I got this little bird friend of mine—a little birdie told me and the Tennessee State House that I think Ford is going to build the first electric F-150 in your state. Is that right?

Ann Thompson: That is correct.

Jenn Folsom: Right, ok. So I got some inside scoop on what's happening in workforce development opportunities in Tennessee—that MIT grad to come to that opportunity. So how do you go about that? How do we make sure those jobs exist?

Ann Thompson: It's a really big question, and it very much comes down to the chicken and the egg. So you can't have a lot of people who are educated and ready to sit occupations that aren't physically present in their community. It's just, it's an issue. But if you can bring in those companies like Ford coming into very rural Haywood County in West Tennessee, then you provide just a plethora of opportunities for all those individuals, not just in that county, but in that entire region. And for Ford being 5,800 jobs, I would argue all of West Tennessee to really up the opportunities for those individuals who do choose to go and pursue an associate's degree or technical college degree or bachelor's degree that they can go and get that education and then still come home and be able to have a good job.

Expanding broadband access

Ann Thompson: And I think that when you start thinking about how to prepare different communities—and what Sam touched on I think is really important. It really comes down to access and helping them understand that just because those opportunities aren't there today doesn't mean that they won't be there tomorrow. And it also doesn't mean that they can't be a part of that change.

I think COVID has done some really interesting things with the education workforce, and the ability to work remotely has become a great opportunity for rural communities. I also think that when you look at some of the challenges that were long kind of dismissed—like broadband not being accessible in rural communities—those types of issues have now come to the forefront.

And so when broadband is really part of infrastructure, and people consider it as important as water and access to electricity, then all of a sudden it’s a game changer for those who do want to live in rural communities.

And I will say that from my perspective, the majority of Tennessee is a rural community. And when you go into those areas, you do have to be aware of the fact that you're coming into very close-knit communities that have families who have been together for generations, and you don't want to disrupt that.

At the same time, it's important to help pull them along to ensure they don't get left behind. And that's where in our department we work with companies every day to try to help them find good places to land, so it's very much a matchmaking process. First, you have to have the land and the physical address, but then do you have the right community here? Is this the right workforce for you? Are you going to be an employer of choice in this area?

And so it's really bringing all of those things together to ensure that you're respectful for what's there, but you also continue to move things forward for the future because like you said, I mean, who would have thought that they would be building the first electric F-150 in West Tennessee?

It's really, it's a very fast-paced, fast-moving progression and technology. And I think that the single most important thing for rural communities is to ensure that we're providing the infrastructure, the access, and the resources to help them have that technology available.

Developing the workforce

Jenn Folsom: Well, my same inside source over here in Tennessee told me that Tennessee has the lowest unemployment rate, I think, in the country, or among the lowest. How on Earth are you going to get people who are trained? How do you adapt that workforce in Western Tennessee?

Ann Thompson: That is such a good question. So yes, those numbers get kind of funky. So when you start looking at employment rates, there's a lot of different numbers that go into there. Right? Unemployment rate. Sorry. There's a lot of different statistics and facts that go into that.

One of the things we have to look at is our labor force participation rate, which in Tennessee is actually fairly low compared to the nation. And that is the percentage of the people who are able to work according to age demographics. What percentage of those are working?

And so the first thing we've got to do is look at those individuals who we kind of consider to be people who are on the bench more or less if you're thinking about people who are playing in the game and people who are on the bench. How do we get them off the bench and into the workforce?

So that's where you start looking at those different wraparound services that need to be available, such as transportation, access to education, childcare, housing. All of those things play a vital role in developing that workforce.

And then the other thing you have to look at is just ensuring that people have access to the right on- and off-ramps for education. And so if you start thinking about the individuals who are going to be necessary for Ford and SK in West Tennessee, those people—these are new jobs.

And so those individuals are going to have to have a really clear path of what the line from education to employment looks like. What are the different occupations that are available in these new fields? What are the different resources that are necessary to train those individuals? What does that trajectory look like?

And that's where, I think, especially in rural communities, it's important to really help people understand what that career pathway looks like because a lot of times it's scary and it's daunting, and they don't know where it goes. And so people will jump into the workforce, and then they'll jump right back out.

So I think those are some of the things that you've really got to focus on—is how do we meet people where they are? How do we help ensure that they get on the right path to employment? And then how do we ensure that the companies we're bringing in, such as Ford, have a good understanding of how to work with that community? And that's—building those relationships is going to take time, but it's definitely going to create some very strong relationships where those jobs will be there for generations to come.

ARC: A federal-state partnership

Jenn Folsom: And that's so great. And you point out a couple of things that I think Kinsey can really help us with. So, Kinsey, first of all, tell us a little bit about the mission of the Appalachian Regional Commission. How does the ARC, or do we say the ARC, how do they work on successful education and workforce development projects? How do you fund those? How do you grow them?

Kinsey Walker: Sure. I'll start by giving you a little bit of an overview of ARC as a whole and then move into the more specifics that you asked about later. We actually do say ARC as three full letters, but for those of us that do projects with us, we do have a system where ARC is used. So it's a little bit interchangeable, but when I'm referring to the Appalachian Regional Commission, we do say ARC.

And ARC is unique in that it's a federal-state partnership agency working to bring Appalachia to socioeconomic parity with the rest of the nation. So all of that to say that states and the federal agency work together. And most government agencies, especially federally supported government agencies, don't always have a state component.

So that makes us really unique, and I think it helps us really connect well with folks on the ground in our 13 states that are doing this work every day. Whereas we act as the conduit of funding and information, they're the ones actually carrying out the projects. So the state program coordinators and the governors are really crucial and to us having that first touch with those programs.

And every year, ARC grants support hundreds of economic development projects. We work primarily in community capacity building, business and entrepreneurship development, infrastructure projects, tourism, and workforce and economic development.

So our projects also tend to have two core distinctions. We work with construction projects—that means if you need to build a center for your workforce training. And then also non-construction projects that are more program-based.

And that could be something like an educational opportunity for career education at a K-12 school or throughout an entire county. And those are just ways that we work with specifically education and workforce, but those distinctions are the same throughout the organization.

And to tie that all together, it's a large umbrella. So as everyone on the call knows, a workforce is a very large umbrella for many different types of projects and topics. We are working in the K-12 space in really interesting ways in entrepreneurship, which to kind of take—I know we were talking about large employers primarily in Tennessee and other parts of the region, but there's also this side of economic development and workforce development that really fosters entrepreneurship that I think is amazing that we're doing with K-12 education through a partner called EntreED.

And they are really great conduits of economic development through their entrepreneurship education models. It literally looks like Shark Tank for students in a lot of situations. And then they also build technology labs for students to use to hone their skills, depending on the product or the business that they're developing.

So it could run every stage of what an entrepreneur would go through in real time, but you're doing it in a way-less risky situation as a student before you might choose to do that later post-K-12. And they touch eight states in the region, and we work with a lot of projects primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio with that group. So to kind of take it to the other side of workforce development, we really love working with those smaller communities of students and fostering them through that process.

Impacts from the pandemic

Jenn Folsom: That sounds a heck of a lot more interesting than some of the things I did in school. [LAUGHS] I bet you get some great ideas. And I'm going to toss this out to everybody. I mean, we are in this black-swan event, this global pandemic, the thing that was on no one's radar and just really, I think, forever changed work and life and education. How do you think COVID-19 has changed the landscape for education and workforce development in your rural communities?

Caitlin Howley: I think it's really raised the stakes for rural communities. It's revealed to people who might not have been aware before how dire the lack of access to robust broadband is in rural communities, and that has links to both education and workforce development because the internet has become how we engage as citizens, as workers, as friends, and family members.

Jenn Folsom: Just right up there with electricity and phone lines, right? I mean, it's like the same equivalent.

Caitlin Howley: Right. Like Ann said, if we start to think of it as being as important as clean water and electricity, it changes the frame that we view it in. And so it becomes a vital infrastructure so that rural people can participate fully in the life of the United States.

Kinsey Walker: Yeah. I would say on another side of that, it's given a lot of flexibility to workforce training and development programs, especially as conduits through our higher education partners or community college partners. Folks are having a lot more flexibility as to when they learn, when they train, so there's some positives there as well.

But like Joe stated before, the first step is making sure you have reliable access before you can even take advantage of those things. So it opens up a lot of opportunity, but you have to have that first step of having reliable access to broadband.

Advice for rural communities

Jenn Folsom: Yeah, that really is on the critical path. It's just remarkable. And so, to each of you, what advice would you give rural communities that are trying to dovetail education and economic development projects to support sustainability?

Caitlin Howley: I think that it would be really important for the people who will be affected to be involved. So I would recommend that people who—and groups who aren't necessarily involved in education and community development efforts—be invited in to ensure that multiple perspectives and needs are brought to the fore and integrated into any planning that happens.

And ultimately, in the long run, this kind of approach, this willingness to invite in and listen to multiple perspectives, will help ensure equity in whatever twin education and economic development efforts the community decides to undertake.

Kinsey Walker: I totally agree with that. All of our most successful projects and what we encourage applicants for our funding opportunities to do is collaborate with the purpose. That's the best way to make sure you're pulling off not only scalable change but sustainable change in your communities or sustainable support.

Maybe you're not changing an entire system, but you're just bolstering support for one that's already been successful in smaller places—regardless of how you're tackling the problem, the community involvement, the employer involvement, the educational institution involvement, you have to have all of those pieces. So collaboration with the purpose is strongly encouraged for our projects.

Sam Redding: Jennifer, one thought is, and I broached this earlier in describing a local project and I didn't say this local project is a countywide project—now to us that means there are a total of four high schools, two of which are very small.

But I think it's more practical to organize a lot of the types of things you're talking about in terms of cooperation between workforce development and education at a higher level than a single community. And a county is one unit of scale that opens the door for more possibilities, bringing together more of the right partners to collaborate. And so as a region and so as a state.

So I would put the onus on those types of organizations that set above a level of an individual community but have the opportunity to coordinate several. I think you get a greater opportunity of scale with that approach.

Ann Thompson: It is, and I think those are really good points. The only thing I could maybe add is one of the challenges with rural communities is understanding what those needs really look like. So if I had any advice for those communities, it would be to understand what it is that you need specifically and don't be afraid to ask for it.

And so if they're able to go in and do an inventory of what are the jobs in our area within maybe a 20- or 30-mile radius, however far their workforce is willing to drive? So what are those jobs? What are the education opportunities that train for those jobs? What do those pathways look like? And where are the gaps?

And I think that the other thing is to ensure that they're not afraid to ask for those resources, not only from the community organizations that are designed to help them but also from the companies that are in that area because a lot of times companies will say, “We would love to be a help to this area, we would love to be a part of the solution. What can we do?” And there isn't a really good answer for that all the time.

So the programs I've seen that are most successful are when a community can say, “Hey, we would love to produce more welders for you, but we don't have instructors or we don't have welding supplies, we don't have enough welding trainers.” And then the company or the resource can come in and say, “Great, we can supply that for you.” So I think just really understanding what that specific ask is, is something that could be worked on and really result in some great workforce development training programs.

Planning grants

Kinsey Walker: I'm just going to jump in real quick with another component to some of our funding opportunities. There is a planning grant application. So not only implementing all the amazing projects in the region but addressing that exact statement of we have to make sure we're responsive to the needs of communities.

If they don't have all of the skills to do the big research, database, or collect research in communities, they need additional help to plan that process. Or if they need to do a needs assessment in multiple states, that may not be something that they can facilitate on their own. So we do have a planning component of our grant process for most of our projects.

And if there's something that communities are looking for or they're not sure which one they should approach first, they are welcome to go to our website, search through our grant information, or reach out to us as staff to get some advice about where to begin in that process.

Jenn Folsom: Oh, that's terrific. Ann, Kinsey, Caitlin, and Sam, thank you so much for joining me here today on the ICF podcast. And I don't know about you, but collaboration with a purpose, I think that's going to be my mantra for 2022. Thank you all.

Ann Thompson: Thank you.

Meet the author
  1. Caitlin Howley, Portfolio Lead, Youth and Adult Education

    Caitlin is an expert in education and child welfare with over two decades of experience. View bio

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