Innovative, collaborative workforce development crucial for rural economies

by Payton Christenberry ([email protected]) 458 views 

Innovative and collaborative workforce development is crucial for rural economic success. From efforts driven by potential employers to early pipeline programs operating in the K-12 space, there is ample space for differing efforts to work together and share best practices. 

It is in that spirit that the Rural Workforce Development Southern Region Summit was created. A joint effort between the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton and their Workforce Training Center, the summit is an opportunity to showcase some of the leading rural workforce development programs in Arkansas and open up a dialogue between rural workforce development programs across the state and region. 

By exploring ways to add value to the workforce pipeline together, the goal is to bolster the slowed rural economic growth that has been occurring since the Great Recession of 2007.

While the Great Recession hit all sectors of the economy, no area was more affected than rural America. That’s what data collected by the USDA’s Economic Research Service points to. By their numbers, metro and non-metro areas both saw the same decline in wage and salary employment, yet metro areas have recovered more than three times as quickly (1.8% annual growth rate between 2010 and 2017 in metro versus just .05% in non-metro). That leaves non-metro areas with employment levels below what they were in 2007, while metro areas have surpassed their 2007 employment levels. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t jobs available, however. In 2017, the Federal Reserve System conducted a series of listening sessions designed specifically to look at workforce development issues. In that report titled Investing in America’s Workforce, author Noelle St.Clair notes that in some areas there are jobs being created, but that they are met by a workforce with inadequate training to fill them. Lack of job-specific training is also a major deterrent to new job creation and economic growth for rural areas. So much so that the inaugural Under 40 Forum in 2016 at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute identified continued workforce development as a key recommendation for continued economic growth, as noted in the report from that meeting. The Forum comprised honorees of the 40 Under 40 lists from both the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal and Arkansas Business. 

Many efforts across Arkansas and the South are developing several different training levels and focuses at all points along the workforce pipeline. And while all efforts share unique challenges, rural workforce solutions face challenges that aren’t seen in more urban and metro areas. 

That’s why bringing together rural workforce champions to learn about and discuss their own efforts and those of successful programs in Arkansas is an opportune way to add value across the system. By each rural workforce effort sharing its unique perspective, solutions, and roadblocks, many more can quickly learn or offer advice.

The need to combine workforce expertise with structured conversation is what brought together UACCM and the Institute in this effort. By combining the workforce knowledge and collaborative success of the UACCM Workforce Training Center with the Institute’s methodology for structured dialogue and facilitation, this summit should provide attendees with opportunities to not only learn from successful panelists and keynotes, but also from each other. 

The more attendees that join with a stake in rural workforce development, the richer the summit will be. Registration is at

Editor’s note: Payton Christenberry is a Senior Program Officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. The opinions expressed are those of the author.