Building Assets for the Rural Future

Advance Rural Workforce Development

The Opportunity

A trained and skilled workforce is a valuable community asset that makes an area more competitive for economic growth and development.[1] North Carolina has made significant investments in workforce development through the state’s community college system, which already offers JobLink Career Centers, Human Resources Development Programs, and continuing workforce education programs for dislocated, unemployed, under-employed, and incumbent workers.

The workforce skills in rural communities, however, tend to lag behind those of their urban counterparts.[2] Nationally, educational attainment among rural workers is lower than among urban workers,[3] and lower education levels are predictive of holding a lower-skill, lower-wage job.[4] North Carolina tracks the national trend. Rural per capita income in the state is almost $6,000 less than urban per capita income,[5] and a lower percentage of the state’s rural residents have earned a high school diploma or a college degree as compared to urban residents.[6] This suggests that rural areas in North Carolina may benefit from a tailored workforce approach that addresses the unique challenges of the rural environment.

How the Tactic Is Applied

  • Coordinate regional workforce needs
  • Employ communications technology to connect low-income rural residents to jobs
  • Establish a regional career pathways program

Coordinate Regional Workforce Needs

Center for Community Action (North Carolina)

In Robeson County, North Carolina, the Center for Community Action (CCA) assumed leadership of a regional workforce coordination effort that was organized following massive job loss and increasing poverty in the mid 2000s. The workforce effort, called Women’s Economic Equity Project, convened regional government, business, education, and nonprofit leaders to find ways to exploit emerging employment opportunities in health care and education.[7]Area health care providers, the school system, the community college system, and University of North Carolina Pembroke partnered to develop career pathways for employment in each of the two sectors, offering women tailored education to help them advance in the education and health care fields.[8]To maintain the pathways, CCA organizes quarterly “alliance” meetings with employers, community nonprofits, and public agencies. The meetings are used to determine how best to support employees in these sectors, to discuss shared policy and advocacy positions, and to determine how to create more jobs in the region.[9]Services provided directly to participants include individualized career coaching, monthly support group meetings, and financial support.[10]Currently, the Women’s Economic Equity Project serves over 200 women, and CCA is working to expand the program throughout the county and the region.[11]

Employ Communications Technology to Connect Low-Income Rural Residents to Jobs

Connectinc. (North Carolina)

Low population densities in rural areas make it difficult for workforce development programs to offer job placement services on the same scale found in urban areas. In eastern North Carolina, Connectinc. tackles this problem by employing telecommunications technology.  From a single call center, Connectinc.’s case managers assist unemployed workers and individuals transitioning off the state’s welfare program by providing phone-based job-matching and placement services. Case managers also offer resumé assistance and interview preparation. After individuals are placed, they continue to have access to a network of support services designed to keep them in the job.[12]  The call-center format allows Connectinc. to serve low-income rural workers in sixteen counties, fielding as many as 1,000 calls per day.[13]  Connectinc. has received several awards for its unique approach to rural low-income workers.

Establish a Regional Career Pathways Program

Southern Good Faith Fund (Arkansas)

Career pathways programs establish an educational track to train workers for employment in a specific industry, and then they provide continued support and education for both job placement and advancement in that industry.[14]  In rural areas, however, lower population densities present some challenges. To achieve adequate scale, the Southern Good Faith Fund (SGFF) established a statewide career pathways program in Arkansas for careers in six high-demand sectors: nursing and allied health, business, manufacturing, education, welding, and EMT/paramedic.[15]  In partnership with community colleges and businesses in identified sectors, SGFF developed a “map” of noncredit and credit college programs for entering into each career.  Staff members work with students to develop individualized career plans based on the circumstances and goals of the student.[16]  To ensure that students across the state—including those in rural areas—can complete any of the career pathways, all necessary courses are offered at each of the state’s community colleges and technical institutes.  Finally, students entering the program are provided intensive support for job placement and retention.[17]

The program was designed for students facing difficult circumstances. Over half of the participants are single parents. Three-quarters receive food stamps.[18] Program evaluators in 2009 therefore focused on the program’s success with retaining students in the program through graduation. Some 90% of the students graduated or remained enrolled in good standing at the time of the evaluation. Three years into the program, a small number of participants had graduated. Over half of them reported being employed.[19]

Learn More

Mac Legerton
Executive Director
Center for Community Action
Lumberton, NC

On the Internet

Southern Good Faith Fund – Career Pathways Program

[1] Leslie A. Whitener & Tim Parker, Policy Options for a Changing Rural America, 5 AMBER WAVES 58, 64 (2007) (noting that businesses are increasingly interested in a well-educated workforce and that rural areas with a poorly educated workforce and few and poor educational opportunities may not be able to compete in the current economy).

[2] Robert Gibbs, Lorin Kusmin, & John Cromartie, Low-Skill Employment and the Changing Economy of Rural America 2 (2005), available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err10.aspx (summarizing findings of study that low-skill rural jobs declined mostly as result of greater skill requirements within manufacturing and service industries).

[3] Lorin Kusmin, Robert Gibbs, & Timothy Parker, Education’s Role in the Metro-Nonmetro Earnings Divide, 6 Amber Waves 30, 32 (2008).

[4] Gibbs et al., above note 2, at 19-20 (“Education has the largest effect on the likelihood of low-skill employment.”).

[5] N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, Rural Data Bank: Income in North Carolina, available at http://www.ncruralcenter.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=82&Itemid=247 (last visited Apr. 29, 2010) (In 2000, rural per capita income was $17,579, while it was $23,162 for urban areas of the state.).

[6] N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, Rural Data Bank: Education in North Carolina, available at http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p249901coll31/id/1429 (last visited Apr. 7, 2015) (26.3% of rural residents have less than a high school diploma, compared to 17.2% of urban residents, and 15% of rural residents have a bachelor degree or higher, compared to 30.3% of urban residents.).

[7] Interview with Mac Legerton, Executive Director, Center for Community Action (Jan. 22, 2010).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jennifer Miller, et al., Building Bridges to Self-Sufficiency: Improving Services for Low-Income Working Families 29 (2004), available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/building_bridges.pdf.

[13] See Connectinc., FAQ ; Connectinc., What’s Happening?

[14] Davis Jenkins & Christopher Spence, The Career Pathways How-To Guide 2 (2006), available at http://www.sectorstrategies.org/system/files/WSC_Career_Pathways_howto.pdf.

[15] Southern Good Faith Fund, Career Pathways, http://www.nrfc.org/arkansas.asp.  The initiative began as a regional Certified Nursing Assistant career program in 1996 and expanded to include other careers and go statewide in 2004.  SGFF recently handed the initiative over to Southeast Arkansas College and Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas through the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. Other statewide career pathways initiatives can be found in Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Ohio. See Karin Martinson and Pamela A. Holcomb, Innovative Employment Approaches and Programs for Low-Income Families 26 (2007), available at http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411467_employment.pdf.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. at 5-6 (describing the intensive support services).

[18] Workforce Strategy Center, Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative: Progress Report of Activities and Outcomes During Program Year Three 19 (2009), available at https://www.sog.unc.edu/sites/www.sog.unc.edu/files/AR_CPI_Report_YR3_Final_2009.pdf.

[19] Workforce Strategy Center, above note 18, at 12-13.


Public Officials - Local and State Government Roles