Shifting Gears on Automation

New America Launches Rural ShiftLabs Initiative
Blog Post
Feb. 13, 2019

Rural residents, who make up about 20% of the U.S. population, are more vulnerable than urban counterparts to job change and potential job loss due to automation, artificial intelligence, and technological change. According to a new report, America at Work, released today by Walmart, the 190 million Americans who live outside of major metro areas find themselves at a disadvantage to urban centers when it comes to capacity for resilience in the face of automation. Yet rarely are residents of rural areas, small cities or towns seeing their needs addressed in efforts and discussions around the future of work. The reasons for their vulnerability are diverse -- ranging from lags in postsecondary attainment to an occupational mix heavily weighted towards high-risk jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, and retail -- but they aren’t simple. The solutions required are equally as diverse, reflecting the varied history, demographics, vision, and needs of rural communities and small towns across the country. How should communities prepare for these coming disruptions?

Because smaller cities and rural regions face unique automation risks, we need an approach that puts them front and center. New America’s new Rural ShiftLabs Initiative works in partnership with rural communities and small towns to diagnose local automation risk, survey existing responses, identify community priorities, and build a long-term vision of economic vibrancy. This work extends the geographic reach of our ShiftLabs initiative, which launched in 2018 in Phoenix and Indianapolis.

Through Rural ShiftLabs, New America works alongside local partners to design and implement new ways to connect workers to emerging opportunities in four regions spanning rural towns and smaller towns. Through the ShiftLabs process, we will seek out local partners, engage workers, provide data-driven technical assistance, facilitate community design labs, and co-lead efforts to help communities expand, create, or consolidate the programs and policies they need to connect their residents to social and economic opportunity in the face of automation. Our hands-on approach isn’t meant to yield a one-size-fits-all solution or series of meetings. It’s meant to help rural communities identify emerging jobs and get workers ready to do them.

In December, Rural ShiftLabs began its work in northern Indiana, focusing on Elkhart and Goshen, an area reported by Brookings to be at the third highest at risk in the nation for automation-related job change and loss in the United States). Throughout 2019, we’ll extend the Rural ShiftLabs work to Northwest Arkansas, an 11-county region in southern Indiana, and southern West Virginia. We chose these places because the myriad challenges and opportunities they face reflect the realities confronting different rural communities across the country. New America will elevate, circulate and scale the promising solutions that emerge in these communities to inform and inspire similar efforts to address the future of work around the country.

To learn more about ShiftLabs and the original Shift Commission report, please visit: or contact Molly Martin at for more details on our work in Arkansas, Indiana, and West Virginia.

New America would like to thank Walmart Giving for their support of our expansion into rural communities and small towns.

  • Executive Director - Kristin Sharp
  • Research Director - Molly Kinder
  • Community Outreach & Rural Project Director - Molly Martin
  • Outreach & Research Coordinator - Margaret Streeter
  • Research Assistant - Matthew Schwartz