Rural America’s Resilient Workforce

April 1, 2024

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Title: Small Towns, Big Opportunities: Many Workers in Rural Areas Have Good Jobs, but These Areas Need Greater Investment in Education, Training, and Career Counseling

Authors: Anthony P. Carnevale, Lulu Kam, and Martin Van Der Werf

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Educational attainment and workforce opportunities vary in rural and urban areas due to distinct economic and social circumstances. While there are fewer small farm, mining, or lumber jobs today than 40 years ago, certain blue-collar industries in rural America are less vulnerable to changing macroeconomic conditions and have flourished.

As a result, there are still good job opportunities in rural regions of the country. The authors of a new report from the  Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce define a “good job” as one that pays at least $43,000 for workers between 25 and 44 and $55,000 for those 45-64. The availability of good jobs in rural communities promotes economic prosperity in the short term, but long-run success will require more education and training.

The types of jobs available in rural and urban communities are implicitly different. Rural areas offer more good jobs that do not require college degrees, boosting the likelihood that rural workers will hold good jobs. There are two regions where the majority of the rural workforce holds good jobs: the Midwest and the Northeast.

Differences in employment rates and the likelihood of holding a good job can partially be attributed to differences in labor force participation rates between the two areas. While labor force participation has always been lower in rural communities, from 2007 to 2019 the rural workforce participation rate decreased 2.6 percentage points while the urban participation rate only declined by 0.7 percentage points. Comparatively, among all working-age people, 38 percent of urban dwellers and 32 percent of rural dwellers hold a good job, so the likelihood that members of the rural workforce will hold a good job is skewed by high nonparticipation rates.

For both rural and urban regions, holding a postsecondary degree is correlated with the likelihood of holding a good job. Among all rural workers, those with less than a bachelor’s degree hold nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of good jobs, compared to 44 percent of their urban counterparts. So while a bachelor’s degree will increase the likelihood of getting a good job for both rural and urban workers, the immediate benefit is greater for urban workers.

Race and gender also play a substantial role in educational and career attainment. Some key findings include:

  • Black/African American workers make up 7 percent of the rural workforce, but only hold 5 percent of good rural jobs. Similarly, Hispanic/Latino employees represent 8 percent of the rural workforce and hold only 6 percent of good jobs.
  • Rural men with any level of education are more likely than their rural and urban women counterparts to hold a good job. For example, 64 percent of rural men with some college or an associate degree hold a good job, compared to 36 percent of urban women and 34 percent of rural women with the same credential.
  • Rural women are less likely than urban women to hold a good job (38 percent compared to 46 percent), while urban and rural men have the same likelihood of holding a good job (61 percent).
  • Many of the good jobs available in rural areas are blue-collar (17 percent), the majority of which go to men.
  • Women are likely to suffer greater economic inequality in rural areas.

The availability of good jobs in rural and urban regions is complex and dependent on multiple factors, but, overall, there are more well-paying jobs available in rural areas than popular belief would suggest. To continue building on the developmental foundation, though, rural education and workforce advancement should be a financial and legislative priority.

To read the full report, click here.

—Erica Swirsky

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