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Rural South faces challenge attracting high-quality jobs
By Allison Matthews
Southern Rural Development Center
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- More adults in the South are reaching a higher educational status than in past years and job numbers have increased significantly over the past decade, but rural citizens may be less likely to see the same economic improvements that are occurring in metropolitan areas.
A report in Rural America, the journal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, said the education and work skills of rural people are inadequate compared to their urban counterparts. Even people living in rural America who do have valuable skills and higher educational levels often have difficulty finding jobs that pay as high wages or salaries as they could earn in larger cities. While job numbers have increased, job quality has not improved.
The article states that employers locate in urban areas much more often than choosing a rural setting for their company or business.
"Good jobs that require an educated workforce and offer excellent pay continue to bypass rural places for the richer pool of human, financial and physical resources found in urban areas," it says.
The article was authored by researchers at the Southern Rural Development Center. Housed at Mississippi State University, the Center serves the Southern region and its 29 land-grant institutions. Its primary focus is to address issues that affect the rural South by linking the research and Extension capacities of land-grant universities to small communities that can utilize technical assistance in educational outreach programs.
"The South has a higher ratio of educated adults in its urban areas than it does in rural communities," said Bo Beaulieu, SRDC director and lead author of the Rural America report. "This is also true for many rural areas across the nation."
While one in four adults in the metro South have a college education, only one in seven adults in rural areas have been to college. Beaulieu said statistics vary by race, but people are more likely to have higher education levels, regardless of their race or ethnic background, if they live in metro regions.
"There is no question that the South already plays a vital role in the American and global economies," Beaulieu said. "But rural areas are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting high-quality jobs that employ well-educated workers."
Encouraging evidence indicates that the South as a region is doing well, but Beaulieu said individual areas within the South may fall further behind. One major challenge for the region is the low education levels among minorities, which are projected to be the fastest growing population.
"While blacks are graduating from high school in increasing numbers, relatively few are moving on to four-year colleges," the article states. Education levels among Hispanic residents are also very low. Beaulieu said the percentage of white, black and Hispanic residents with bachelor's degrees or higher is two to three times greater in the metro South than in the nonmetro South.
"Creating enough high-paying, quality jobs in rural towns is the key factor in making these appealing areas for educated adults to live and work. This also is important for attracting young adults back to their rural hometowns after they have finished college," Melissa Barfield, SRDC graduate assistant and co-author, said.
The article describes how long-term strategies to improve work skills and raise education levels in Southern rural regions are crucial to advancing economic development opportunities in these areas. Barfield said raising standards in schools to challenge students and set high aspirations regarding educational and career plans will help advance rural regions' chances to attract quality jobs.
"With increased educational levels, rural citizens will not only have better career options, but this will also lead to an improved quality of life," Barfield said.
The article also emphasizes the important roles of families in encouraging educational and occupational achievements. Beaulieu said an important task for improving education levels and work skills is to raise parental aspirations for their children's long-term educational and occupational choices.
"Students' goals, attitudes and dedication toward achievement are greatly influenced by family support, encouragement and expectations. When parents expect success from their children, children are more likely to work toward success for themselves," he said.
Beaulieu said rural citizens can also improve the economic situations in their communities through diversification and building on skills and talents that already exist.
"Local talents may lead to home-based and other businesses that strengthen the local economy and minimize an area's dependence on income from a limited number of employers," Beaulieu said. "These are strategies to stop the increasing wage gap between metro and nonmetro employees. Although more rural citizens have become employed, they continue to earn less than their urban counterparts."
For more information, the article is available online at www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ruralamerica/ra154/ra154d.pdf.