Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: A rural county finds its advantage in unlikely places.
02: Roadside Attractions: ‘Let’s talk turkey.’

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 01: Postcards

Indiana’s Lawrence County — an area known for its limestone quarries and being the birthplace of three astronauts — has had to get creative to close the education gaps and labor shortages affiliating much of rural America.

A student welds during one of Lawrence County’s ‘Introduction to Local Jobs And Skills’ courses. (Courtesy)

About seven years ago, a local mayor aired out his frustrations to Joe Timbrook, director of career development for the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council. His message, Timbrook recalled recently, was simple: All the area’s employers were complaining that they couldn’t find any skilled workers.

That conversation jump started Timbrook’s efforts to increase the number of people who could fill open jobs in Lawrence County. So far, the growth council’s efforts have led to 150 people earning diplomas or graduating with new in-demand skills for careers in machining, welding, and construction — and the council has plans to expand.

In 2018, Lawrence County leaders realized that the county had about 2,500 adults aged 18 to 65 that didn’t have even their high school diploma, much less postsecondary training. Handwritten signs on telephone poles were the only way most people were learning how to get their high school certification.

With the help of an Indiana state grant, the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council came together in 2018 to start addressing its workforce gaps. Perhaps the county’s most innovative re-education effort began in its courthouse.

The council persuaded local judges and prosecutors to include in all plea agreements a 3-week training course for in-demand fields such as machining, welding, and construction. From there, the students can continue pursuing 8-week and 10-week certification courses paid for by the state.

“I have judges texting me on the weekends about how the class is doing,” Timbrook says.

Once the growth council saw the success of the program, it started opening the program to other adults as well.“We’re just trying to figure out what this community needs and fill the gaps,” Timbrook says.

This labor challenge isn’t just a problem in Indiana but across America. Key industries lost scores of workers in recent years, and have struggled to get them back. Manufacturing lost 1.4 million jobs at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, and hasn’t replaced them, with nearly 700,000 open jobs as of March 2023.

Even if every unemployed person with experience were employed, manufacturers would fill only around 75% of their vacant jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which notes similar deficits in education, health services, and wholesale and retail trade.

That reality is getting even worse in rural places, where educational institutions for retraining are scarce, and public transit to get people to their jobs isn’t always available. And in rural areas where populations are aging and declining, there are not just less skilled workers, but less working-age people to begin with.

In Indiana, Lawrence County is considering adding an adult literacy program and health care training courses to its partnerships with the community college IvyTech in Bloomington, a little over half an hour away.

Using local data to assess what already works and expand it is especially critical in areas with few educational institutions, says Dakota Pawlicki, director of Talent Hubs at Civic Lab, an education nonprofit that partnered with Lawrence County to systemize their outreach strategy.

“With a lot of national organizations, there is this perception that rural areas are at a deficit,” Pawlicki says, but that perspective can lead to many hidden strengths of rural areas being overlooked. “In Lawrence County, their unique asset just happened to be something that was happening inside of jail.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • ‘Let’s talk turkey.’ Mark Browning, the president of Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore., recently gave an impassioned defense of rural students while arguing that state legislators didn’t understand their needs. “Rural has value,” Browning said, in a report published by Elkhorn Media Group. “We not only feed y’all, but we’re storing all your pictures from Instagram and the cloud out here, so let’s talk turkey.”
    • Browning added that rural students often are studying part-time while still working jobs, and so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them: “They have lives and their balancing school around that, so our operation needs to be different.”
  • Should I move home? A West Virginia author grappled with that question in a piece for the Daily Yonder. Her concerns are achingly familiar to rural expats who have considered returning to their birthplace.
  • West Kansas sees nursing grants. Fort Hays State recently received two federal grants totaling more than $4 million to expand nursing programs in western Kansas, funding stipends and tuition costs for students in the region.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.