Developing Talent in Rural America through Work-based Learning Experiences

As rural communities struggle to grow their economies and retain skilled labor, work-based learning experiences such as internships and apprenticeships offer a promising strategy to address workforce talent shortages and connect individuals to in-demand careers. To achieve scale, there are promising actions state policymakers can take to better align existing programs and resources to support economic development and educational attainment in the rural areas of their states.


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Introduction: Rural America’s Talent Development Challenge

While most urban centers have experienced robust economic growth since the Great Recession, rural areas have seen less growth, or have stagnated, with overall employment levels still below pre-recession levels. Although there are complex reasons why rural regions may lag behind urban regions on this measure, an important contributing factor may be a lack of skilled talent, which can be measured in part by educational attainment. While educational attainment has improved in rural areas, the gap in attainment between urban and rural areas has increased. As of 2013, 51 percent of adults in nonmetro communities have a high school diploma or less, compared to 39 percent in metro areas. Such gaps are brought into sharp focus given the finding of a recent study that 95 percent of jobs created since the recession went to individuals with at least some postsecondary education.

This attainment gap has implications for employment opportunities available to rural residents. A 2016 survey by the Manpower Group found that 46 percent of employers in the United States had difficulty filling jobs, with a lack of technical and soft skills found to be major barriers to meeting those needs. While these “skill shortages” affect both rural and urban areas, rural communities are less able to meet the need for skilled talent. As jobs in industries, from health care to manufacturing, increasingly require more skilled labor, communities that lack skilled talent in critical occupations can see reduced economic opportunities for their residents, and ultimately experience challenges to retaining and attracting businesses that rely on educated workers.

States have recognized the connection between economic competitiveness and educational attainment and have responded with efforts to improve the access to, and the affordability of, postsecondary education. Rural communities often face specific challenges to strengthening postsecondary education, including funding disparities, fewer community colleges or community-based organizations focused on training or difficulty retaining skilled educators. Furthermore, when graduates are unable to connect their degree or program of study to a job in their community, they are less likely to remain in that community.

While there is no single solution to these issues for rural communities, work-based learning—the connection of structured education with on-the-job learning—is a promising strategy that could address some of these challenges. State investment in and support for internships, apprenticeships, coops and other types of work-based learning can simultaneously support a state’s goals for educational attainment and economic development in a way that is adaptable to the needs of rural communities. While there is a need for further research on this topic, states’ experiences with work-based learning provide promising options to address specific barriers in rural communities.