Workforce Development and Human Capital
This approach focuses on strategies to strengthen the workforce in rural communities and explores how
investments in human capital can make changes to improve local economies and employment equity. Human capital is the set of qualifications
and capabilities that an individual possesses that can be applied to a job, including education, skills,
expertise, and other relevant knowledge. Employment
equity is the ability for everyone who is seeking a job — regardless of race, gender, or geography
— to be able to successfully find one to support their family with a living
wage, which is the minimum standard required to support a family's cost of living in a particular
community. Employment is an important social determinant of health (SDOH), as stable
employment has been linked to improved health outcomes and well-being.
As the country continues to recover from the Great Recession, rural areas are beginning to see improvements in
the local economy and a decline in unemployment levels. In 2018, the nonmetro
unemployment rate was 4.2% compared to 3.9% in metro areas. However, in some rural communities,
unemployment rates remain high and
businesses are slow to move in. Job growth in rural areas also remains slower than that of urban areas. In part,
lack of job growth in rural areas is related to the decline of jobs in manufacturing and resource-based
industries, such as agriculture, logging, or mining. In rural communities that were once dominated by a single
industry, workers may
lack opportunities to gain new skills that would allow them to compete in other industries. Rural workers may
benefit from workforce
training related to growing sectors, such as technology, construction, healthcare, and financial
In addition, although the rural poverty
rate in 2017 (16.4%) has improved since 2013 (18.4%), poverty rates remain higher among certain racial
and ethnic groups in rural areas compared to rates among non-Hispanic White populations.
Investing in the Rural Workforce
Population characteristics and demographics are important considerations for implementing workforce development
programs to increase human capital. The population in many rural areas continues to age, while many youth leave
for educational and employment opportunities in urban areas (also known as the rural “brain
drain”). Investments in the rural workforce can lead to improvements in the economic stability of
Some rural communities focus on improving
employment equity for populations that have specific barriers to workforce participation, such as
formerly incarcerated individuals or older populations. Other communities may focus on creating opportunities
for youth to enter the workforce and secure high-paying jobs through pipeline programs, internships, vocational
training, or apprenticeships. Programs that invest in strengthening and building the skills of the local
workforce can keep people in their community rather than leaving for other opportunities.
Cooperative Extension programs play an important role in
workforce development in rural communities. Models promoting skill-building for rural workers can use
extension programs as a bridge between the community and local businesses. Extension programs can serve as a
valuable workforce intermediary, connecting people with job training, educational opportunities, and local
employers. Extension programs are uniquely positioned to connect residents with training on new technology and
systems important to improving employment outcomes.
Investing in educating and training the rural healthcare
workforce is a particularly important strategy to increase access to healthcare to address SDOH in rural
communities. Strategies may include providing rural rotations, interprofessional training opportunities, and
implementing telehealth. For more information about programs that use strategies to increase healthcare access
in rural areas see the section on Improving Health and
Examples of Rural Programs that Focus on Workforce Development and Human Capital
GrowingChange is improving the rural workforce by providing
job experiences and education to youth at risk of entering the criminal justice system. The youth are given
the opportunity to work on a sustainable farm that was previously a decommissioned prison. The organization
also works to provide job skills to unemployed, wounded veterans. Through the farm, GrowingChange will also
help the underserved population by improving the local food system.
Seneca Towns Engaging People for
Solutions (STEPS) is addressing SDOH by increasing economic and educational
opportunities for residents. STEPS facilitates skill-sharing courses taught by community members and
also leads a community business mentor program. The community business mentor program connects local youth
with a mentor who develops internships and also hosts career exploration days at schools. Youth can learn
about different career paths, including careers focused in agriculture. STEPS also developed a small
enterprise program that provides small grants and loans with low interest rates to grow local businesses. In
addition, STEPS posts local jobs on their website for community members to share.
The Community Caring Collaborative (CCC) is
connecting residents with workforce development opportunities and training. The Recovery & Employment
program in development will work to connect people who have a substance use disorder with
training and job opportunities. CCC hopes to connect local businesses to this effort to create a more
supportive community for those recovering from substance use disorder. CCC also leads ongoing
training opportunities for the
community and is developing a mentorship program.
Community Outreach & Patient Empowerment (COPE) recognizes the importance of youth mentorship and
empowerment to address SDOH and to improve local Navajo communities. Through the Navajo Community Health Outreach Leadership Program, COPE
builds the skills of native youth, providing mentorship and leadership training so they can help to improve
health and well-being in their communities. The program works with different high schools to train youth
leaders and develop human capital. COPE also provides education for youth interested in a career in
The Western Rural Development Center
offers programs that focus on workforce development in the Western United States region, with a particular
emphasis on programming geared towards veterans
who are farmers. The Center is working with researchers and the Western Extension Directors
Association to identify gaps in workforce development and potential solutions. For example, the Center is
providing training to improve technological skills among veteran farmers in an effort to meet the employment
demand of new industries in western states.
Residents from rural communities once dominated by single, resource-based industries such as coal mining, or by
one large employer, continue to struggle when these businesses shut down. Workforce development strategies can
be particularly important for promoting employment opportunities and economic stability.
Many rural areas across the country continue to lack access to broadband technology, which can limit workforce
and educational opportunities. In order to cultivate and grow a culture of entrepreneurialism in rural places,
increased broadband access is important to stay connected to new trends and business opportunities. Limited
public transportation infrastructure can also be a challenge for building human capital and accessing employment
For strategies that rural workforce development programs can use to address transportation and connectivity
challenges, see Models to Improve Access to Transportation in
the Rural Transportation Toolkit and Connectivity Considerations
for Telehealth Programs in the Rural Telehealth Toolkit.
Program Clearinghouse Examples
Resources to Learn More
the Scope of Workforce Development
Describes workforce development programs and explains how investments in youth, specifically investments in
post-secondary education and programs to disseminate, may yield bigger gains for developing the workforce.
Author(s): Athreya, K., Neelakantan, U., & Romero, J.
Organization(s): Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
for Thriving Rural Communities
Provides recommendations for suggested improvements and investments in rural Indiana that may be useful for
other rural communities to consider. Includes priority areas of focus, such as developing local leaders,
supporting entrepreneurship, workforce and human capital development, and investments in infrastructure.
Organization(s): Indiana University Public Policy Institute
Rural Dimensions of Workforce Development
Describes rural characteristics and trends for workforce development, including challenges and opportunities for
change. Discusses four key factors that present challenges for rural employers and employees, and presents
several necessary components of successful rural workforce development.
Author(s): Dabson, B.
Citation: In Andreason, S., T. Greene, H. Prince, & C.E. Van Horn (Eds.), Investing in America's Workforce:
Improving Outcomes for Workers and Employers. Volume 2, (pp. 183-194). Kalamazoo MI: W.E. Upjohn
Institute for Employment Research.