As rural job markets ‘rise,’ colleges face new demands

As the geography of U.S. job growth shifts, community colleges scramble to keep up.

Southwest Tennessee Community College sits in an impoverished area of Memphis, and it has long placed a priority on building paths out of poverty.

“Community is in our middle name for a reason,” says Tracy D. Hall, Southwest Tennessee’s president. “We don’t teach what we want to teach, we teach what is needed.”

The big idea: What’s needed has been changing rapidly. For years job growth was concentrated in the central core of Memphis and its home county of Shelby. But more recently, new jobs have shifted to more rural counties, like neighboring Fayette.

In fact, Fayette has seen some of the most rapid growth in job openings in the country in the past two years—and it ranked No. 8 among rural and exurban counties in a recent analysis by Ligthcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass). Demand for warehouse workers, caregivers, and sales floor support in the county is particularly strong.

Memphis has a large healthcare industry, and it’s been a transportation and warehousing hub since the days when the Mississippi River and the railroads dominated long-distance trade. FedEx Corporation and its massive fleet of planes have been headquartered there since 1973. 

As the geography of jobs in the region shifts, though, it presents challenges for institutions like Southwest Tennessee and the University of Tennessee at Martin, as well as the students they serve. The same is true in other places from Dinwiddie County, Va., to Putnam County, Ga., to Henderson County, Tex.

  • Between 2019 and 2021, counties in greater San Francisco, New York, Santa Clara, and Baltimore saw job postings drop by more than 30 percent.
  • Seven of the 10 counties with the steepest drops were urban—while nine of the ones with the biggest surge in job postings were rural or exurban.

Following the Great Recession, employment growth in urban areas far outpaced that in rural ones. Then three years ago that flipped, according to an analysis of job postings across the country by Lightcast.

The job postings in rural areas ran the gamut of occupations from science and technology to healthcare and transportation—but the high growth jobs, on average, paid 20 percent more than the prevailing wages in the area. And demand for high-tech skills like cloud computing, web analytics, and online marketing grew substantially.

Two years is not a long trend line, but Lightcast sees evidence that while the shift was started by the pandemic, it may well outlast it. 

“It seems clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a re-evaluation of both how Americans work and where they want to work,” wrote Julia Nitschke, a research analyst at Lightcast, and her coauthors.

The researchers emphasized that job postings, unlike employment data, tell you what employers intend to do.

“They are thus more forward-looking than backward-looking,” the authors wrote. “And it appears that employers are signaling a belief that some major metros no longer hold all the talent they need or that that talent can at least be found elsewhere as well.”

Community colleges step up

To be clear, some rural counties are losing both jobs and workers. Rates of growth in both job postings and employment vary from one rural county to another, just as they do from city to city. But in general, Lightcast found that rural and exurban counties are on the “rise.”

To meet the growing demand in those areas, community colleges and some four-year institutions are forging or growing partnerships with local industries and workforce boards. The goal is to respond to workforce needs not just this year, but 10 years down the line.

Henderson County, Texas: Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Tex., is rolling out three new programs—for bus drivers, commercial drivers, and electrical lineman—just this month. All three have waiting lists.

It started a bachelor’s program in nursing after the Covid-19 crisis hit. And the college also is well into designing new programs in construction and in computer science, cyber security, and cloud computing.

The new investments were driven by meetings with the college’s business advisory committee and an annual comprehensive needs assessment for the local service area, which encompasses Henderson County—home to Athens, a town of about 13,000 people—and four other counties. The new programs are in keeping with the growth spotlighted in the Lightcast analysis.

  • Henderson County ranked No. 1 for rural job growth in that analysis.
  • The three occupations with the most demand were registered nurse, software developer or engineer, and retail store supervisor.

As for student interest, Kelley Townsend, associate vice president of workforce education at the college, says hands-on and skills training programs have shown the biggest enrollments.

The Peach State: Georgia bagged three spots on the report’s list of top 10 rural counties for job growth. Madison and Franklin Counties neighbor each other in the northeast part of the state, and Putnam is just south of that region.

Across all three, the most in-demand occupations in 2021 were warehouse worker, inventory associate, tractor-trailer truck driver, and retail sales associate. 

Rock Eagle Lake in Putnam County, Ga. (Photo by Sean Pavone via Shutterstock)

Central Georgia Technical College in the middle of the state serves an 11-county area, including Putnam County, that is the size of Delaware. It includes a mixture of towns and cities like Macon, with a population of about 150,000, and rural areas. The region is an industry hub of transportation, logistics, and manufacturing. 

Traditionally, the college’s healthcare programs have had the highest enrollments due to workforce demands in those fields. Of the trade programs offered at CGTC welding, HVAC, and automotive have the highest enrollment. IT and cyber programs are currently growing due to industry demand. Since 2019 the top majors for enrollment have been healthcare related programs, business, and cosmetology.

“Universally everybody is looking for talent,” Mike Engel, dean of the college’s aerospace, trade and industry programs, says of the current labor market.

Engel says all their local sectors are desperate for skilled labor. The skilled trades have faced labor shortages for a long time, he says, in part because young people were often encouraged to pursue other careers. This trend has been made worse through a combination of pandemic disruptions and the retirement of the boomer generation. 

Due to this labor market demand, in the past few years CGTC has added a diesel mechanics program and is adding a mechatronics program, Engel says. They are “entering into some very exciting times” when it comes to technology in industry, he says.

Dinwiddie County, Va.: Brightpoint Community College, one of the 23 colleges in the the Virginia Community College System, serves residents and businesses in central Virginia, including Dinwiddie County. The county was No. 7 on the list of rural counties with the most job growth, with demand particularly strong for warehouse workers, caregivers, and those in sales floor roles.

William Fiege, vice president of learning and student success at Brightpoint, says healthcare programs at the college, like others in the nation, are flourishing.

Brightpoint has increased its number of nursing students from 80 per semester to 90, with hopes of reaching 100 nursing students by next spring. Additionally the college recently started a new practical nursing program to address workforce demand, and a pharmaceutical manufacturing career studies certificate to meet the needs of several companies that are coming to the region.

The college also added eight new IT certification programs last year.

Brightpoint is part of the Community College Workforce Alliance, a shared workforce development division, and it educates many workers through FastForward, a statewide program which provides Virginia residents access to certifications and licenses for skilled trades.

Across the state, FastForward enrolls more than 2,000 CCWA students a year. All the programs must align with occupations that Virginia’s Board of Workforce Development determines have significant labor shortages in the state and can be supported by local markets. Training must also lead to living wage jobs accessible in weeks or months rather than years, says Elizabeth Creamer, vice president of workforce development and credential attainment for the alliance. 

“The pandemic accelerated an increase in student interest and demand for shorter-term occupational training,” Creamer says.

CCWA members, she says, also have seen an uptick in business and industry interest in creating talent pipeline partnerships, especially work-based learning programs such as pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships and internships. 

“For the first time, CCWA has employers coming to us to offer paid internships,” Creamer says.

Leaning on partnerships in Tennessee

The DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn. (Photo by James Kirkikis via Shutterstock)

As Southwest Tennessee Community College responds to a shifting labor market, it’s working closely with industry partners. Local businesses were instrumental in developing two of their newest programs in aviation and funeral services. Their funeral services program is the only one like it in the state. 

Each program at SWTCC has a workforce advisory team or committee from industry that weighs in on best practices and ensures that students are workforce ready. SWTCC also runs a faculty externship which allows faculty to take a leave of absence to work in an industry and then return with new perspective and expertise to share with students. The arrangement also helps strengthen the college’s ties to local and regional companies.

To complete the externship, faculty engage in 60 hours of project work and job shadowing in a relevant industry over the summer. Faculty and businesses must apply to participate, and faculty are compensated throughout the process.

The mission of this program, explained Jeremy Burnett, dean of academic learning and support, was to “blur the lines between the college and business and industry, so we can better prepare students for our workforce.” 

The externship is modeled after a program at University of California, Berkeley. Six career and technical education faculty members at SWTCC participated in 2020 and 2021. The college is working to expand that number and to figure out ways to involve faculty from its general education courses.

Even when college leaders know where the puck is headed with industry, getting that to align with enrollment can be a challenge. Local industry liaisons say business, technology, and industrial maintenance and machine operation are where the career opportunities are, but SWTCC has seen enrollment declines in these areas.

Industrial programs, in particular, were hard hit by the pandemic, says Amy Shead, associate vice president of workforce development at SWTCC. Businesses looking to fill these roles are in a crunch for people, she says, so the college has been working with businesses to upskill people already in their workforce, including with microcredentials, certifications, and licensing.

Students and workers are ready

At nearby University of Tennessee at Martin, agriculture is big business. The institution’s students are predominantly traditional age, but it has seen an increase in nontraditional students the past few semesters, according to Demetrius Robinson, the university’s director of career planning and development. 

After the pandemic-related enrollment dip, Robinson says that students are back and more engaged than ever. In the weeks since classes have started, the career planning and development office has been inundated with appointments. During the last week of August, UTM held its part-time job fair. Over 200 students took part in the event—the highest turnout ever. 

Robinson says his biggest battle is a marketing one: letting students know what jobs are out there and what they entail. He’s found employers are trying to figure out how to get the word out about what they do and need, and students don’t know how to break into the market. 

The university, like many colleges we spoke with, is also focused on students’ long-term pathways and quality of life.

Trinity Valley’s Townsend says that after returning to campus, students said the pandemic “totally changed” their perspective and priorities. Students are coming to TVCC because they realized they don’t like their job, want better pay, want flexible hours, or just to be happy in their job.

“It’s a want game,” she says.

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