‘Good Jobs’ in Rural America Are Changing, So Learning Must Change Too

Published feb. 21, 2019

I was raised in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a rural, mountainous region in the north-central part of the state. It’s an area dotted with dairy and crop farms that border on densely wooded state forest. It is also home to one of the largest free-range elk herds east of the Mississippi River.

I moved back here recently after nearly 15 years, to be closer to my family and because my spouse and I sought an affordable, private piece of land to build our forever home. We wanted a place away from the noise, traffic, and commercialization that we’d seen swallow up so many sprawling green spaces. 

The high-speed internet here is accessible, but expensive, and reliable cellular signals can be difficult to find.  But, whether it’s watching the does with their spotted fawns meander through our backyard in the springtime, or staring up at a clear night sky undimmed by streetlights, not a day goes by that we don’t take a quiet moment to appreciate the raw beauty of this place. 


Growing up here, it was assumed that if you wanted to pursue higher education, you would leave after high school and begin your adult life somewhere else. There are practically no postsecondary education institutions in this region. So in 2003, I moved to Pittsburgh to attend college, then to Harrisburg, for graduate school and later, a great job.  After several years, I moved to Wilmington, Delaware, for a job with more responsibility and better pay. 

The “Wilds” itself hasn’t changed much since I left. What has changed is the way that residents here now make their living. Since moving back, I’m working as a senior program manager at JFF. My neighbor is a software engineer for a tech firm in Sydney, Australia. My good friend is a part-time telehealth physician’s assistant for a health system in New York City. We all work from home, travel when needed, and earn salaries equal to our colleagues located in those cities. Even more interesting is that we all grew up in this area and, after moving away, decided to return and plant roots. 

Companies find that tapping into rural talent pipelines is a good alternative to outsourcing talent overseas.

From farmers and miners to technicians and marketers

The nature of work in rural America is changing. In regions where broadband internet is adequate and affordable, remote employment and telecommuting are gaining momentum in industries such as IT, health care, and sales and marketing. 

Advanced manufacturing and tech firms, such as the Chemours chemical plant in New Johnsonville, Tennessee, and Pillar Technologies in Jefferson, Iowa, are choosing to set up shop in rural regions because of the friendlier tax climates, affordable real estate, lower cost of living, or to be closer to supply chain providers. Many have found that tapping into rural talent pipelines is a good alternative to outsourcing talent overseas. As such, access to a highly trained pipeline of workers is a critical factor that companies consider. 


Providing rural residents with the skills they need to thrive in a changing labor market requires cultural, systemic, and structural investments into postsecondary educational pathways.

Rural high school graduates used to be able to find jobs that paid decent wages in industries like farming, mining, manufacturing, and timber harvesting. But automation and globalization have led to requirements for more advanced skills, such as certifications in STEM fields, interpersonal communication skills, and an understanding of not only local and regional, but also global marketplaces.

Providing rural residents with the skills they need to thrive in a changing labor market requires cultural, systemic, and structural investments into postsecondary educational pathways that reflect the new economy.

Rural community colleges, which play a critical role in economic and workforce development, are starting to evolve their programs and educational models in response to these changing needs.

 JFF, in partnership with community colleges and local economic, workforce, and community-based organizations, aims to assist rural regions in designing and implementing K-12 to postsecondary pathways that are responsive to industry skill needs. The goal is to also provide the support services necessary to help youth and adults complete education and training programs that lead to good jobs and enable them to stay in their hometowns. 

JFF’s recent report, Accelerating Opportunity in Rural Regions: Designing Pathways Programs for Adult and Other Non-Traditional Learners, demonstrates the ways in which rural community colleges are changing. The report is part of JFF’s Accelerating Opportunity initiative, an innovative and proven model that integrates career and technical skill content into Adult Basic Education courses. The program also provides an immediate application of learning to adults’ career and education goals, helping to keep students motivated and on-track while reducing the number of courses required for completion.

JFF is working throughout regions like Appalachia, where thousands of jobs were lost when the mining industry collapsed, the inland agricultural regions of California, and southwest Alabama, where the impact of the Great Recession is still widespread. We collaborate with local agencies and community colleges to launch cutting-edge teaching and learning models that integrate on-the-job and classroom competencies that companies in the new economy are looking for. Contextualized, blended, and work-based learning models are helping enable the 11.2 million rural adults that reside in “education deserts” to earn credentials and degrees via online courses and on-the-job work experiences. 

Part of the challenge of advancing the educational attainment and skill level of rural Americans is that funding and resources are often limited. The result is that companies, colleges, lawmakers, and residents must work together to provide rural students with the opportunities and experiences they need to flourish in a changing labor market. Some of the strategies JFF is working to promote include:

  • For employers: Consider innovative strategies to engage the remote workforce and tap into rural talent pipelines more extensively. The growth of the “1099 economy” (independent contractors) and work-based learning for students are excellent opportunities to expose companies to the capabilities and creativity of nontraditional jobseekers.  
  • For colleges: Design programs in such a way that rural learners are given opportunities to explore the new economy, especially by informing them of the variety of options for online learning and working. Millennials and young adults may need to develop the cognitive skills necessary to be successful in online learning and working environments. 
  • For policymakers: Ensure that broadband internet is accessible and affordable, and that the importance of postsecondary training and education is elevated and prioritized in campaign platforms. 
  • For everyone: Shift the narrative about rural America. Yes, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities to reap the benefits of rural living without sacrificing economic advancement.


Many rural graduates who move away to pursue higher education never return, resulting in these regions experiencing a decrease in intellectual capital and a sense of feeling “left behind” as the rest of the nation experiences economic growth and prosperity. Those of us who return often do so because we feel a sense of belonging and a desire to give back to the communities that raised us.

But economic growth and advancement require cultural and physical changes that reflect the need to instill a different set of norms and expectations on those who live and work here. We are in a position to challenge the dichotomy that graduates must sacrifice rural living in order to succeed professionally. We must initiate a systemic and societal shift toward empowering students with the skills and credentials necessary to thrive professionally in rural economies while also ensuring that they have the opportunity to use their learning in ways that benefit their communities.