Dec. 5, 2017
In many areas of rural America, small towns are growing smaller, tiny school districts are merging, and stores and cafes are closing up shop. Meanwhile, lifelong residents watch as young people move away for work or school, and those who remain face precarious economic circumstances. With depopulation comes a host of community challenges: a shrinking number of schools, strained access to preventive and acute healthcare, and increasingly outdated transportation and telecommunication infrastructure.
Downward economic momentum can be hard to stop in distressed rural communities, and meeting these challenges will require innovative solutions that increase economic and educational opportunities, while bolstering community health and sustainability. However, innovative solutions aren’t necessarily new ones. There is a way to cultivate and retain local talent to meet local needs: growing apprenticeships in rural areas. Apprenticeships have been connecting jobseekers to local employers through mentorship and on the job learning in the US for over 75 years.
Apprenticeship is a work-based training model that prepares apprentices for a career in a specific occupation, through class-based and on-the-job learning. In addition to earning a paycheck from day one, apprentices benefit from the expertise and guidance of a designated mentor in their field, who monitors and supports their progress. Some apprenticeship programs include a credential-bearing higher education component, allowing a graduate of a registered apprenticeship program to complete their training with both an industry-recognized certificate and a college degree. And while some begin their apprenticeships right out of high school, the average apprentice in a registered program in the US is 28. Apprenticeship can work for a variety of folks in a variety of circumstances, and it’s time for us to scale up economic opportunity in rural communities by using apprenticeships in innovative ways.
Policymakers and community leaders may think apprenticeship is only suitable in fields like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical work, where the model is well-established. Certainly, leveraging apprenticeships in these fields is a great practice. However, in order to meet rural challenges, communities of policy and practice must stretch their thinking beyond tradition to imagine an apprenticeship infrastructure that meets a wider variety of community needs. After all, the Department of Labor’s list of apprenticeable occupations – jobs permitted to have registered apprenticeships – contains over a thousand entries. And the fact is that apprenticeship programs are cropping up in many new industries like insurance, financial services, early childhood care and education, and IT. The health of rural America depends on well-resourced and well-staffed healthcare and education resources, as well as a skilled workforce in a number of other fields. And in each of these areas, state and local stakeholders and employers can work together to cultivate local folks’ skills and education to meet these needs in their own communities. They'll also be saving members of their community from the student loan debt that too often comes with college.
Many if not most employers in small towns are, themselves, small. Large firms may have staff and sufficient financial resources to pay their apprentices, cover all tuition for related technical instruction, offer benefits, and provide close program management. However, this may not be a realistic possibility for cash-strapped small employers in economically distressed areas. This is where state and federal support for workforce development initiatives – including apprenticeships – comes in. For example, states can direct federal WIOA funding to subsidize a share of apprentices’ wages, or even use those funds to promote apprenticeship to employers and potential apprentices. Access to this type of funding can inject needed funds to rural apprenticeship providers that skill up the local workforce and can be used to increase vital services to the community in healthcare and education.
And rural communities need not rely entirely on existing employers to build up apprenticeship opportunities. Virtual apprenticeships hold much promise for rural areas. Some jobs that offer family-sustaining wages, such as medical coding, can be done remotely. And in good news for rural Americans, not only can the job be done remotely, in some cases, the training can too. AHIMA’s slate of apprenticeships in health information management fields, including medical coding, incorporate related technical instruction that can be done through online classes and, additionally, some apprentices’ employers may allow the work itself to be done remotely. Employers who need to fill positions with the possibility of remote work should think about tapping the talent pool in rural areas by training local folks through apprenticeship. Growing this sort of distance apprenticeship program could allow folks who want to earn more for themselves and their families the opportunity to do so, while staying rooted in their home community - wherever that may be.
Expanding apprenticeship opportunities in rural areas isn’t just a matter of spreading the word about the potential of apprenticeships or generating employer buy-in. Though those are certainly necessary, we need policy solutions that provide resources to support apprenticeships in rural areas. States can make a pointed effort to leverage WIOA-funded sector partnerships in high-need fields, such as healthcare and early childhood education, to finance apprenticeships in rural communities with staffing difficulties. Combining apprenticeship and degree programs through partnership with higher education could provide apprentices access to federal and state student financial aid, further incentivizing participation and providing needed resources for student-apprentices to stay the course. Finally, President Trump’s executive order on apprenticeship, which directs the Department of Labor to use available funding to build, promote, and increase access to apprenticeship, could be a boon to distressed rural communities that stand to benefit, if sufficient funds are targeted to rural areas. Federal and state policies that attend to rural health, education, and economic needs while supporting apprenticeship have the potential to revitalize struggling rural. Growing apprenticeships tailored to rural communities may be an old solution that’s been hiding in plain sight all this time.