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Navigating Challenges Faced by Rural American Job Seekers: A Comprehensive Guide

August 22, 2023

In the pursuit of better economic prospects, rural job seekers encounter a unique array of obstacles that stem from the distinct characteristics of rural communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Rural America at a Glance report shows more than 20% of rural residents are over age 65 compared to 16% in urban areas. Declines in the “working-age” population may make it harder to meet labor demands in some rural industries and local labor markets. At the same time, many rural areas lack sufficient health care capacity, broadband service, community centers, and other services to address the challenges associated with an aging population.

older worker in front of brick shop

In addition, racial and ethnic diversity is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of rural America. Even though white people still represent the majority of the rural population (76%), that ignores that 86 of the 100 most marginalized counties in the country are rural, 60 of which are located in Tribal lands or Southern regions with disproportionately large populations of Black residents. It is a misconception that renders invisible the 14 million Black, Hispanic and Latino, Asian, Native, and multiracial people who live in rural America (2020 census-nonmetro plus).

This article sheds light on the hurdles faced by rural American job seekers and offers insights into potential strategies to address these issues effectively, ultimately fostering more successful job searches and more equitable access to economic opportunity.

Limited Broadband Access

There is no question that technology has become more available and affordable for most Americans at all socioeconomic levels. The global pandemic surfaced both the importance and availability of online connectivity as millions met the calls for physical social distancing and transitioned online for remote work, school, health care, government services, and regular communications with friends and family members. Yet, millions of other people still struggle with sustaining consistent access to broadband internet, especially low-income and rural populations. More than 31% of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home, severely hindering their ability to know what jobs are available. Not only are they deprived of opportunities to connect with job openings, they are also unable to apply to jobs that provide remote working opportunities.

Limited Access to Quality Education and Training

The rural population is decreasing, aging and migratory, and, as a result, these communities present unique challenges in providing quality education with limited resources. This lack of access means rural residents are more likely to have lower educational attainment. A recent analysis of U.S. Census data at the county level shows that rural areas tend to have low college-degree attainment levels, and that urban and suburban areas often feature wide gaps across racial lines. Fully 84% of the counties in the bottom 10% on degree attainment rates are mostly or completely rural, the research found. And just 16% of the counties in the top 10% are rural. Some rural industries that grew over the past two decades were professional, scientific, and technical services, educational services, and finance and insurance. The growth of these industries represented a shift in the composition of rural production toward industries that employ higher shares of high-skill workers. Rural job seekers grapple with limited access to quality education and training resources, hindering their ability to stay competitive in evolving job markets. This educational disparity is exacerbated by inadequate high-speed internet connectivity, further isolating rural individuals from online learning opportunities and valuable skill development platforms.

Sparse Job Opportunities and Economic Diversity

The scarcity of diverse job opportunities poses a significant challenge for rural job seekers. Many rural areas are heavily dependent on a single industry, making job seekers vulnerable to sudden economic downturns. Population decline due to urban migration compounds this issue, creating a cycle of reduced economic growth and limited job prospects. In order to combat these challenges, a FlexJobs survey found that rural workers most want to work remotely full-time. A whopping 85% of rural workers reported this as their top choice, compared to 76% of general job seeker respondents. Remote jobs open workers up to employers located in other cities, states, and countries. This can help eliminate under-employment that is common for those in rural areas who can’t find local work to utilize their abilities.

Overcoming Transportation and Commuting Barriers

Transportation obstacles in rural areas add complexity to job searches. The lack of reliable public transportation forces job seekers to rely on personal vehicles, straining their finances. Additionally, limited access to efficient transit limits the scope of job searches, impacting the potential to find suitable employment beyond a narrow radius.

Strategies for Progress

Older woman on laptopExpansion of Broadband Access with Focused Needs: Historically, policymakers have taken wholesale policy and funding approaches when it comes to alleviating digital constraints in rural areas, which has resulted in overspending in areas with minimal or no impact in broadband deployment and adoption. Even with sizable investments among rural carriers, these communities have either been vastly underserved or subjected to less competition, which has inflated pricing for subscribers. Further, it has been harder to measure the effectiveness of these programs due to the lack of robust information about these populations, especially those who have been marginalized due to rapid declines in farming and stagnant employment. It is imperative that broadband access programs not only better understand the needs and wants of all their users when it comes to broadband internet but that they also start with the hyper-local concerns of their populations, especially those who are set to improve their quality of life through more robust online connections.

Rethink skills training in rural areas: Collaborative efforts by government, NGOs, and private organizations can enhance access to quality education and vocational training through both physical institutions and online resources, bridging the rural-urban educational gap. Access to high-quality education in rural areas can be one of the contributing factors to local economic development and help rural communities adapt to a fast-changing environment, while a lack of access risks widening the rural-urban divide with regard to the level and relevance of skills through multiple channels.

Economic Diversification: Once broadband access is expanded, a remarkable opportunity arises for employers to establish connections with an abundant pool of job seekers in rural areas—a sector that remains largely untapped due to existing limitations. This presents a chance to address the current struggle many employers face in filling job openings. However, seizing this potential requires a deliberate effort on the part of employers to integrate rural job seekers into their recruitment strategies. The positive repercussions extend beyond mere economic opportunity; they encompass a crucial aspect of economic diversification within rural communities. This diversification, in turn, enhances the long-term economic vitality and sustainability of these communities and their residents. By embracing a spectrum of industries in rural areas, economic diversification is achieved, providing resilience and granting job seekers access to a wide array of employment options. This strategic move also helps mitigate the risks associated with economic downturns that are contingent on a single industry.

Mobilizing Rural Opportunities: Developing cost-effective and efficient transportation alternatives empowers rural job seekers to expand their job search radius, thereby boosting the chances of finding suitable employment. Commuting to places of employment is an essential use of transportation services in rural areas. Economic stability for many rural residents is dependent on a reliable means of transportation to a place of employment. In a survey of small urban and rural public transit riders, one report found 34% of all public transit trips accounting for work as the primary destination. For some rural residents, longer commute times and lack of transportation options are common barriers to employment. Existing transportation assistance services may have higher costs per rider in rural areas when compared to urban areas, primarily due to long travel distances and low population densities.

Expanding a communities’ access to education improves its economic competitiveness and livability. There is a significant need in rural areas for transportation to and from schools for access to all levels of education. The American Public Transportation Association reports that 12% of all public transit rides are to and from school. Rural children face increased travel time due to the long distances needed to travel to school in rural communities.

The complexities of rural job seeking demand comprehensive solutions that encompass education, economic diversification, digital connectivity, transportation innovations, and supportive networks. Addressing these challenges collectively will not only enhance rural job seekers’ prospects but also invigorate rural communities with a renewed sense of economic vitality and growth. By acknowledging and acting on these challenges, stakeholders can pave the way for a brighter future for rural American job seekers.