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Rural Health Information Hub

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 services.

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 communities.

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 Healthcare.

Examples of Rural Programs that Focus on Workforce Development and Human Capital

  • GrowingChange is improving the rural workforce by providing agricultural 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 agriculture.
  • 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.

Implementation Considerations

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 opportunities. 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

Expanding 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
Date: 5/2014

The 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.
Date: 2018