My brother recently shared with me that an economist he heard at a corporate board meeting had highlighted the “historic highs” in the disparity between urban and rural economies. As the president of Chesapeake College, a rural community college in Maryland, from 2008- 2017, this was not news to me. At meetings with other community college presidents I often prefaced my remarks with “in the parallel universe of the Eastern Shore…” The realities of the political environment, demographics and funding of my college were so vastly different from my urban colleagues that it seemed appropriate to describe us as “worlds apart.”
This is especially true when it came to issues of workforce development. The economist summed up our current situation as “there are no jobs for the people and no people for the jobs.” I simply call it the “catch 22” of rural workforce programming. Employers who are thinking about relocating to rural areas are reluctant to move without assurance of a trained workforce. But prospective employees want to know where the jobs are before investing their time and money in a training program at the community college. We are frequently told that there are actually more jobs available than the number of job seekers, but this does not take into account that the vacancies are not distributed equally among urban and rural areas. In addition, there is a significant mismatch between the skill levels of the job seekers and the job openings. This too discriminates against rural workers/potential workers, whose education and training often lags behind their urban counterparts.
Shortly after assuming the presidency of Chesapeake College I got a phone call from the Director of the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board asking why we were one of the only colleges that didn’t have a Cisco Academy. I responded that there weren’t enough jobs on the shore to justify the expense. When they sent me a list of seven companies that hired Cisco certified employees, I had to point out that the list represented a total of only seven employees. Even if that number had doubled, my college could not afford the start-up costs for a lab, or the long-term investment in a faculty member.
This became a frequent refrain. We recognized the needs for training in the skilled trades, for example, but facilities, equipment and staffing were often difficult to justify for the number of prospective students. We were very interested in supporting apprenticeships, but small local employers had to be convinced of the return on investment for the costs they would incur.
The answer to the lack of resources for workforce programs was clearly partnerships, and sharing existing facilities in schools and businesses. However, our situation was compounded by a very large, five county service area. The lack of public transportation was an impediment to decentralized program development. When Maryland implemented P-Tech schools, for example, we were faced with a lack of companies who could provide paid internships, and no way for students to get to the internships that were available. The model designed for urban environments simply did not work in a rural area.
Another barrier to workforce training in rural areas is the lack of high speed internet. Like most colleges, Chesapeake was moving to on-line resources and increasing the use of embedded video. But we had to be cognizant of the fact that students in isolated areas had no access. While there were ample labs on campus, students’ work and family schedules prevented them from staying after their classes to utilize them. We had reports of students parking outside their local library late at night to connect to Wi-Fi. State economic development officials were shocked when I said this was a significant factor affecting workforce training. Our counties finally began implementing solutions because they recognized that they could not attract or retain businesses without broadband.
I was proud of the progress Chesapeake was making despite these barriers, but often felt that rural voices were underrepresented in the national dialogue. Community college national associations and the business and industries with whom they are working must ensure that solutions are developed that respond to the needs of their rural constituents.