Rural America’s backlash on Tech

Tomas Bankauskas

Last month, I explored how the tech industry might be chasing away talent through job postings. That article stemmed from a statistic I learned that troubled me.

68% percent of Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree

My second thought was “Does it matter if they don’t have a degree, if they have the right skills to do the job?” How can we change focus from hiring for college degrees to adopting skills-based hiring and accelerating job onboarding programs?

2016 held major gains in accelerated & vocational training. Guild Education raised $8.5 million in a Series A round, Galvanize is expanding west with campuses in urban centers, General Assembly now offers 10 week Circuits for digital marketing & data science online, and the Tech Hire initiative expanded to 20 more cities last week.

Yet, we still are not reaching rural America. Many of these programs are in urban centers. How can rural areas tap into these training programs if the offerings aren’t based online with a local connection or if hiring is still strongly based on credentials not skill?

Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis released a report detailing the depth of Economic Anxiety in Oregon last month. Poverty in rural Oregon is sitting around 20%. 1 in 5.

Looking back to 2015, Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis reported that amongst Oregon’s workforce in rural areas, only 18% of 25–64 year olds had a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.

Is a college degree still the best method to assess if our work force is prepared to work in the innovation economy? Can the work force be re-trained to fill the gap in technical positions through online training and by making telecommuting a viable option? (This question assumes broadband access is equal, which it is not).

If you look at the distribution of low wages vs. high wages, you can see there are few middle wage jobs in rural Oregon. Bluntly, you’re either a higher earner or a low earner and there’s limited middle options.

There are programs trying to bridge the skills gap in Oregon. Code Oregon was created in 2014 to offer pathways to high paying tech jobs through the Treehouse online tech training. Initially, the beta was targeted at Portland.

After the election, I’ve had to do some soul searching. As I looked around on Angel List and Crunchbase, I noticed something that Chris Sacca pointed out this week at Slush.

“What’s happened is that we’ve developed this real tech bro monoculture of people who have been the product of a lot of privilege,” he said. “They’ve never actually spent time with the working poor or with anyone whose life has been harder than theirs. They have no sense of the human condition.”

The innovations listed on Angel List and Crunchbase up to today are from perspectives disconnected from the pain our fellow Americans feel. I felt alone is this observation, but am encouraged that more citizens see this and feel a stronger imperative to use our technology to benefit the collective good.

It is more evident than before, we need to put in place innovation driven by social and economic perspectives that are different from the daily realities of urban centers, and address the economically depressed and/or rural areas. While the urban population has benefitted from the stable economy of the past four years, those in rural areas have slipped further behind in technical training for the existing and emerging job markets that need their labor.

By hiring based on skills and portfolios instead of focusing on degrees, as well as providing effective onboarding programs for career transitions to allow more workers to embrace tech, we can better harness the promise of technology to benefit the collective good.

By embracing and welcoming rural communities with opportunities to join the technical revolution, with or without degrees, we can find solutions to the simultaneous problems of unemployment / underemployment and gap of a trained workforce for the challenges ahead.

Can we band together to spread access to training, and start listening to viewpoints affected by the shifts technology has created?

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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