Country songs and TV shows are full of dusty roads, snow-white cotton, muddy boots, and hot cornbread. Born in rural Missouri, I can relate to many of these romantic stories about rural America. I have taken back roads to discover new destinations, herded cattle with three generations of farmers, and felt a surge of anticipation after smelling skillet cornbread in the oven. Yes, I celebrated “Drive Your Tractor to School Day,” spent Halloween nights navigating corn mazes, and have been on a first-name basis with everyone in my town. All the charm and beauty of rural America is being threatened by limited education and career opportunities for residents, and communities risk shrinking and disappearing as a result. But communities in Arkansas expect more.
Last year I joined 17 Expect More conversations in rural and suburban communities across Arkansas. We asked one incredibly important question: “How can we make sure tomorrow’s jobs are better than today’s?” Expect More: Our Jobs, Our Future shows us that nearly 70 percent of jobs in Arkansas require a high school diploma or less, and most of these jobs don’t offer a high enough salary to support families. The story unfolding in rural communities across Arkansas–the good, bad, and ugly–will either go unchanged or worsen if we don’t take action to prepare more residents to obtain high-skilled jobs that pay family-supporting wages. While the data may appear daunting, we have reason to hope. Residents across Arkansas are taking action to attract, train, and retain the high-skilled workers communities need to grow and thrive.
How can rural communities...
…train high-skilled workers?
Rural communities face geographic and financial barriers to providing residents quality education and continued workforce training. However, the residents in communities I visited aren’t letting anything prevent them from creating a brighter future. From teaching children the alphabet, preparing students to read at grade level, and providing high school graduates a path toward earning degrees and certificates, families, educators, community leaders, business leaders, and policymakers across the state are doing what works to train high-skilled workers.
Arkansas Northeastern College (ANC) in Blytheville partnered with area school districts to offer an early college credit program, making it possible for high school students to earn college credits and pay lower tuition. ANC also offers technical education programs to high school and college students at no cost. Local school districts and the Arkansas Department of Workforce Education cover the fees for training in advanced manufacturing, aviation maintenance, college and career readiness, criminal justice, education, medical professions, and welding. ANC's programs provide students a seamless pathway from secondary to postsecondary education, helping them develop the skills they need to succeed in future careers–Blytheville students are leaving high school and immediately increasing the size of their community’s high-skilled workforce.
…attract and retain high skill workers?
Many rural residents fear that large corporate investments will overtake “small-town charm” and destroy a community’s quaintness. However, rural communities can strictly prioritize, even capitalize, on corporate interests while strategically investing in sustainable economic development.
IMPACT Independence County engaged the Batesville community to develop a 10-year strategic plan for improving the quality of life, place, and economic opportunities for residents. The IMPACT Plan outlines several goals for establishing an “inviting and progressive business environment that provides quality jobs” and compliments “the rapidly changing 21st Century.” To support these strategic goals, local government, businesses, and the community service group at Entergy have established the Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) program to serve existing and start-up businesses. BRE brings together the community’s major employers to discuss how they can attract and retain the talent and resources businesses need to improve and grow. Instead of compromising a way of life, residents in Independence County are using available assets and strong community ties to expand the local economy.
Whether it’s a long dusty backroad, a 10-year strategic plan for economic development, or a career pathways program, rural communities are inspiring us and teaching us how to prepare every Arkansas resident to succeed in the workplace and strengthen our state’s economy.
Check Out Our Expect More Bright Spot Series
Check out our Expect More Bright Spot Series to see:
Examples of what communities are doing to attract, train, and retain high-skilled workers who earn family-supporting wages
Replicable models and encourage communities to adopt what has worked in others
How educators, community leaders, business leaders, and policymakers are taking action to create a more prosperous future for our state
EXPERIENCE OUR EXPECT MORE BRIGHT SPOTS