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Pandemic recovery depends on rural investment

Getting people back to work – provided they’re healthy and protected from harm’s way – must be a priority for pandemic recovery. Invest, innovate, grow and recover.

But that’s more of a challenge in rural areas, and always has been.

Julie Davis, director of workforce development for the American Equipment Manufacturers, says that although running a business in a rural area comes with some wonderful perks – such as lower crime rates, great scenery and a sense of community that’s unlike urban areas – it also comes with some unique challenges for workforce development.

For example, she cites a lack of access to broadband Internet, rural “brain drain,” very little diversity and limited access to higher education. In Ontario, internet is finally getting addressed. Through the pandemic, it’s become clear how better Internet is central to so much, such as enhancing education and turning the table on migration.

But there’s more. Davis says rural areas can face challenges with transportation – long distances and spotty public transportation, for sure – along with elusive childcare, limited housing and longer distance to hospitals and health care.

The question is, who will take charge? The province? It’s been hit hard and appears to have pretty deep pockets. But in the long run, a different solution is required, one that doesn’t depend primarily on urban politicians paying lip service to rural areas at election time, then disappearing when it’s over.

The current model isn’t working on either side of the border. As Davis points out, one out of every four businesses in the U.S. located outside metro areas struggle to find qualified workers, compared with one out of six in metro areas.

The vast majority of U.S. counties with persistent poverty – this is, where more than one-fifth of the population has been living in poverty over the past 30 years – are located in non-metro areas.

Rural residents comprise nearly 60 per cent of the population in neighbourhoods with no broadband access, but only 15 per cent of the country’s total population. Almost 60 per cent of rural census tracts in the U.S. have limited or no access to quality childcare.

It’s a North American problem.

To begin turning things around, Davis points to her organization’s Rural Workforce Action Plan, part of the recently released AEM Workforce Solutions Toolkit.

In it, she’s not passing the buck. She’s calling on industry to be willing to think beyond its own needs by connecting and investing in their communities, with what she calls “robust strategies that require a community focus and long-term mindset.”

Organizations like economic development corporations or chambers of commerce often lead these initiatives, she notes. But drawing on rural research, her challenge goes more broadly.

For example, she says, connect youth and adult workers with education and training programs that relate directly to existing and burgeoning industry sectors.

“A critical piece of the rural workforce puzzle is ensuring that the limited educational programs available in rural settings match the skill and labour needs of the community,” she says. “It’s important that programs create clear career pathways from school to employment.” Agriculture provides a great example, with pathway programs with career technical education.

Finally, Davis advocates for economic diversification initiatives that increase economic resilience. And she calls for collaboration across the public, non-profit, and private sectors to align workforce development, economic development, and community development goals.

In the new era we’re entering, everyone is being called on to be more accountable, more inclusive, more diverse, more equitable. How will that all play out in rural Ontario? Economic recovery and social stability depend on a new approach. 

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