Report: Invest in higher ed, career prep to open more equitable pathways to good rural jobs

“Rural America is not a monolith of poverty and poor job prospects,” according to a newly released Georgetown report from the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). Despite its public image of being “left behind,” the region has a strong blue-collar economy; 31% of rural workers are in blue-collar jobs, compared to 21% of urban workers. Just one in four rural workers has a bachelor’s degree or higher, but they hold 36% of good jobs in rural America. 

Rural communities have aging and declining populations, meaning there are more rural residents out of the workforce, Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy for the center and a co-author of the report, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education. Against this backdrop and a strong blue-collar economy, “the incentive to go to college is certainly less,” he says.

However, the report finds that to be competitive on a national scale, rural America needs to address obstacles to economic opportunity—in part through stronger postsecondary education.

“Rural Americans often feel deeply connected to their communities, but they are increasingly faced with the hard choice of moving to urban areas or staying in rural areas where they have fewer professional and educational opportunities,” CEW Director and lead author Anthony P. Carnevale said in a press release. “Rural America needs more strategies and investment to hold onto its good jobs and create more economic opportunity.”

Good jobs in a rural economy

Among the 119 million 25 to 64-year-old U.S. adults in the workforce, 15 million live in rural America, and 7.4 million of these rural workers have good jobs. The rural workforce comprises 13% of the total U.S. working population for that age group and holds 12%, or a roughly equal share, of good jobs. Rural workers are almost as likely (50%) as urban workers (54%) to have a good job. 

CEW defines good jobs as offering a minimum salary of approximately $43,000 to workers ages 25–44, a minimum of approximately $55,000 to workers ages 45–64, and a median of approximately $82,000 for all good jobs (in 2022 dollars). Researchers took into account cost-of-living differences between urban and rural areas when evaluating whether workers had good jobs.

Barriers to equal opportunity

Rural America faces several obstacles to competing for good jobs on a national scale. Although the region has strong blue-collar jobs, those occupations pay lower wages than white-collar occupations. While workers without a college degree may fare better in rural areas than in urban areas, “income inequality between rural and urban workers grows with higher levels of education,” the study says. “Urban workers with bachelor’s degrees have significantly higher earnings than rural workers with the same level of educational attainment.”

Rural America’s economic landscape is also hindered by lower levels of degree attainment than urban areas, a higher labor force non-participation rate, and higher disability and poverty levels, the report says.

Furthermore, rural jobs are less accessible to women and adults from historically underrepresented communities. A disproportionate amount of good jobs (86%) in rural America go to white workers, who make up 81% of the rural workforce. Although Latine and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander workers have a slightly higher likelihood of holding good jobs in rural areas than urban areas, that likelihood is still comparatively low, at 37% and 42%, respectively. Over 30% of all American Indian/Alaska Native and Black/African American rural adults do not participate in the labor force, compared to lower shares of white (25%) and Latine (24%) adults in rural areas. Men comprise 52% of the rural workforce, but have 63% of the good jobs. Women, in contrast, comprise 48% of the rural workforce but have 37% of rural good jobs.

More equitable workforce

To increase employment opportunities for all rural workers, the report suggests rural areas need investments in several initiatives, including:

  • Individualized, comprehensive school-to-career counseling for rural youth 
  • Training programs that meet the needs of women and members of historically underserved groups, and guide them through career and educational pathways that lead to good rural jobs
  • Free community college and community college programs that offer bachelor’s degrees
  • Expansion of more rural white collar jobs in science and technology 
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