Have A Talent Shortage? Hire Rural Workers
hen my great-grandfather arrived in Utah from Germany, he was a mere child. A few years later, he was hard at work in the coal mines of Carbon County. In those days, rural Utah was a raw materials economy. Not anymore. Drive along the Wasatch Front and what do you see? Tech billboards and glittering new office buildings.
In 2018, Utah’s economy is dominated by software companies like Qualtrics, BambooHR, Domo, Ivanti, Pluralsight, and scores of other small players. Then you have a decent smattering of—how can I put this nicely—network marketing-type firms selling everything from essential oils to skincare products to travel. These, if we can group them as a sector, seem to perennially thrive in Utah’s economic soil.
Sure, we’ve still got manufacturing, and mining is still alive and well. But those industries that used to be rural have gone urban, leaving many companies left in the dust.
Everyone’s Moving to The Cities
While Utah’s economy contains a multitude of industries, growth is largely driven by our voracious tech sector. To the point that the ‘big boys’ (by Utah standards—nobody’s comparing us to Silicon Valley) are unable to feed their appetite for qualified labor and are going afield. As far afield as India, even. Meanwhile, an entire demographic is having trouble finding work. It’s ironic: we have both too few and too many workers. Because, as it turns out, it’s all about where you live—and what skill set you possess.
So where does that leave the rural Utahn? Someone living, for example, near one of the dormant mines in which my great-grandfather toiled? Take the drive from Spanish Fork, through its eponymous canyon, following Highway 6 all the way to Price, and you won’t see many glass-and-steel towers. In fact, you won’t see much of anything, apart from our trademark landscapes. That’s because everyone’s left.
“14 of 29 [rural] counties are suffering from equal/declining population rates since the 2010 census,” says Joel Smith, CEO of Accelerant. Meanwhile, projections from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah show dramatic differences in population growth from now through 2065. Unsurprisingly, the urban centers will continue to urbanize and densify. Surrounding areas—spillover land—will also see dramatic changes. The rest of the state will grow more populous as well but at a much lower rate.
One Company Is Staffing Urban Companies With Rural Workers
What of those who don’t want to move to the city? Those who want to have it all—assuming ‘all’ involves a rural abode and a decent career? Well, there’s work being done on that front, not least by Accelerant, which bills itself as “solving big city challenges with small town opportunities.”
Accelerant serves as a connector, “matching the workforce shortage of the ‘big city’ with the lack of job opportunities and diversity in our rural communities.” By placing training hubs on the main streets of rural towns, the company educates residents in tech, information, sales, and marketing disciplines and then equips them to work urban jobs from their rural homes. Similar to a coworking space that allows members to telecommute to the big city, while providing the skills and training they need to be able to do so.
On the infrastructure front, the state has followed a fairly aggressive plan of investment. “Utah has one of the nation’s best broadband infrastructures,” notes Rebecca Dilg, newly-appointed rural outreach specialist at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). “There is a lot of opportunity for our rural communities to grow and prosper through initiatives with our tech community. We are constantly seeking ways to improve the workforce.”
Much has been done to bring urban education—training specific to growing sectors of the Utah economy—to rural schools. In addition to Accelerant’s program of rural hubs, there are initiatives from both the public and private sectors to get cutting-edge job training into rural communities. “We continue to raise the bar collaborating with tech companies to promote telecommuting and external job resources,” Ms. Dilg says. “Rural Utahns have an outstanding work ethic and a strong sense of innovation and independence. Many choose and enjoy living in the rural communities where they enjoy a healthy lifestyle like the urban workforce—without the commuter rush.”
The Steel Country Is Returning to Carbon County
In 2016, Matt Blaser founded Intermark Steel in Carbon County, not far from where my great-grandfather toiled in coal mines. The highly skilled steel fabricators of Carbon County, who, per Mr. Blaser, “have a drive and hunger that is unmatched by those in Salt Lake and Utah counties”—have helped Intermark rise to the forefront of the steel fabrication industry.
“Carbon County is in the same situation in which many of Utah’s rural towns find themselves,” Mr. Blaser says. “Once a booming oil and mining town, it drew people in from all across the globe.” It’s true. Descendants of immigrants comprise a significant portion of the population. Many are German, Danish, and Irish descendants. My great-grandfather, if you recall, was one of said German immigrants.
“Mining was the lifeblood of the economy,” says Mr. Blaser, who attributes Carbon County’s current malaise to recent regulations that have “strangled the market and left an entire workforce of highly skilled men and women without work.” Regardless of causality, Carbon County eventually became cut off from the state’s economy, until Intermark Steel came around.
It all started when Mr. Blaser ran into Mayor Joe Piccolo. Mayor Piccolo told Mr. Blaser all about “the long life of Pacific Central Steel in Carbon County,” and then, doors started opening. Pro-Carbon Development, a local economic development fund, offered Mr. Blaser a loan with very favorable terms. Then the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments (SEUALG) reached out with even more capital. In the end, Mr. Blaser credits the lion’s share of his success to “the hardworking people of Carbon County who work in the shop every day.”
Urban Companies Setup Shop In Rural Communities
Another company who recently found Carbon County to their liking is Draper-based HealthEquity. In a town where “we found a mother working Subway who had a master’s degree in marketing” (per Accelerant’s Mr. Smith), HealthEquity realized it could fill the jobs left unstaffed in the booming Salt Lake Valley, if they just looked elsewhere. So they partnered with Accelerant to find the talent to keep on its growth trajectory. “They were having trouble filling all the positions they had open in Draper,” Mr. Smith recalls. “We have created over 120 positions in Price.” And that’s only the beginning. Smith expects to add 50-60 more positions this fall.
Success stories like those of Intermark and HealthEquity show the potential of a rural-urban labor collaboration. And my great-grandfather? He used the coal mines as a stepping stone to put himself through medical school. He ended up a physician of some international renown, as well as a wealthy real estate investor with several Salt Lake City apartments to his name. When we realize that rural isn’t synonymous with “unskilled,” we might find endless opportunity for companies located in the outskirts of our state. And a solution to our talent shortage, as well.