A core responsibility of a chamber or local economic development agency is the economic vitality of the communities we serve. We know that when our economy is on hard times, the people in our community suffer. We also know that we must keep abreast of trends in society so we can anticipate changes and stay ahead.  We fight stagnation with creativity and innovation.

We’ve been mulling over the difficulty of rural economic development and what we might be able to do about it. Economic development agencies and chamber leaders deal with these difficulties for a living. It’s a difficulty, but a healthier rural lifestyle is worth the effort and makes for an appealing offer when courting individuals and business to consider relocating to our towns.  Here are some pieces of the puzzle along with ideas to work with. Much of this you probably know, but it might help to view these as a collection of issues to inform your deliberations.

Current Challenges:

Population migration.  Rural economies are losing their younger residents to urban areas in search of jobs or continuing education. This results in a negative feedback cycle: the more talent that leaves an area, the less talent there is to grow the economy.

Automation: What can be automated, will be automated. Through manufacturing and industrial practices, we have optimized the work of the hands: manual labor.  We are now in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is automating the work of the mind: knowledge work.  What is left that isn’t yet automated? The work of the heart: relationship-based activities, experiences, creativity, and communications.

Globalization and Offshoring.  Jobs have migrated to low wage economies with poor labor and environmental protections, creating unfair competitive advantages.

Reduced rural access to medical services.  Communities with insufficient population and/or social programs are losing basic medical care. Add to this the fact that employers with under fifty employees are not obliged to provide health care. 102 rural hospitals have closed in the last decade.

Underemployment. A parallel problem to automation is underemployment. We have done a good at educating our population at the same time we are automating out quality jobs. 33.4% of Americans over 25 hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, but many of the jobs they are prepared for are unavailable. Overqualified employees now work part time and temp jobs, forming a buffer for employers who might otherwise offer more full time work.

Positive Trends

Population reverse-migration.  Rents in large urban areas and cities are at all-time highs and fewer Americans can afford home ownership. Talented employees who have achieved a level of economic security seek a more affordable and balanced place to live and raise families.  30% of our population lives in a county where you need an annual income of at least $100,000 to buy a median-priced home. These trends are driving migration to “Secondary” Cities.

Distributed Knowledge.  The Gutenberg press brought the power of knowledge to the world, enabling literacy throughout print. This knowledge flowed hierarchically through schools, libraries, and bookstores. In today’s fast-paced digital world, knowledge – and the power of knowledge – is distributed via a mesh-network: anyone is an author, and everyone is a reader.  As the internet spreads, rural areas will offer this information infrastructure to distribute knowledge and opportunity.

Long Tail of Services. The long tail refers to the impact of internet and cloud-based applications on the distribution of product and services. Except for products or service which have a physical component, the Internet with its applications and communications services can geographically extend products and services anywhere, anytime. These applications include technology services, business services such as accounting, marketing, distance education, telemedicine, and all-things enabled by video conferencing.

Gig Economy.  For better (freedom of self-employment) and worse (always job hunting), the gig economy continues to grow.  According to Intuit CEO Brad Smith, “The gig economy…is now estimated to be about 34% of the workforce and expected to be 43% by the year 2020.” Those who can make it as freelancers will gain economic stability and as a result, geographic flexibility.

Economic Opportunity. This is the flip side of underemployment.  For creative thinkers and entrepreneurs, the playing field looks good. Opportunities to develop viable and profitable businesses have never been better.

Observations

Rural economies need contributing taxpayers. What are conditions will help us retain our sons and daughters, attract city escaping talent looking to improve their quality of life, and companies who can bolster the economy? Here are some observations and suggestions:

  • A healthy economy requires a diverse and resilient economic ecosystem. This ecosystem is supported by intentional projects like the US Chamber’s Talent Pipeline Management program. Identify your market requirements, develop an action plan, execute, then rinse-wash-repeat.
  • Promote and recruit. Identify and develop the core competencies and your market story and offers. Not everything can be outsourced or offshored. 
  • We are increasingly in an experience economy.  Communities that provide opportunities such as arts, community theatre, diverse social experiences, and healthy outdoors opportunities will attract residents. Build and support local media, arts, culture, and quality internet infrastructure.
  • Embrace diversity and delight in learning new perspectives: the healthy integration of diverse viewpoints produces the best outcomes. Accept and lead into change and growth.
  • Healthy physical and work environments. Quality healthcare and a clean environment are mandatory. People with the mindset and resources to be healthy are the people who will help you grow and thrive. Nurture the pride of stewardship.

In short, learn to lead the competition by out behaving the competition.