Closing the Digital Skills Gap in Rural America

The rural U.S. economy is changing as traditional employment sectors, like agriculture, adopt digital infrastructures. This transition to digital agriculture has highlighted a growing need to bridge the digital skills gap and prepare rural workers for new roles in the workforce that are classified as “middle skill.” Equipping workers for middle skill jobs will allow them to earn more and could decrease turnover and instability for locally-owned businesses and small, rural communities.

Large tech and agriculture companies such as Google, Corteva Agriscience, and John Deere have launched initiatives that aim to provide technological and hands-on training that workers can access within their own communities. Through innovative programs that partner with community colleges, local libraries, nonprofits, and licensing agencies, rural workers can obtain professional certificates and build tech capabilities that will help them meet the changing demands of agriculture and manufacturing. 

Educational Opportunities

In Jefferson County, IA, Corteva Agriscience and Accenture have partnered with local nonprofits and community organizations to offer software-development programs to students and educators through Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). Corteva has funded 25 scholarships, available to students enrolled in DMACC’s computer language program; students who finish all coursework requirements also have the chance to be selected for an intensive, four-month training program in software development. 

The Tech Interactive, a science and tech focused nonprofit based in San Jose, CA, is supporting educators in Iowa’s Greene County Community School District to provide the high-quality STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education that will enable their students to pursue careers in those fields. 

Governor Kim Reynolds has praised this initiative, calling it a “vibrant collaboration” with the potential to bring rural residents up to speed with the requirements of today’s job market. In an increasingly digital world, the demand for strong tech skills is clear, as is the value placed on them by employers.

Community Partnerships

In regions of the country where agriculture is the main industry, and most jobs have not traditionally called for 4-year degrees, a technological “skill gap” has become evident for the 80% of these jobs that now require digital skills.  A team of Google educators, part of the national “Grow with Google” tour designed to promote economic opportunities for Americans, recently hosted a suite of workshops at the public library in Kenton County, KY. Local residents, from job seekers to small business owners, were trained in key digital literacy and tech skills, online marketing essentials, and basic data analysis.

Sessions were filled to overflowing with participants getting hands-on instruction in the use of Google spreadsheets and other GSuite tools, expertise that will prepare them for the estimated 58% of Kentucky jobs that are now classified as “middle skill”. In an effort to turn the tide on this, Google has partnered with public libraries in all 50 states, training library staff and local non-profit leaders in the use of free “Grow with Google” tools and resources that they can pass along to their patrons. Additionally, libraries can now apply for Google mini-grants to run their own digital literacy programs built around the needs of their communities.

Streamlining Certifications

John Deere has obtained approval from the U.S. Department of Labor to offer a new Registered Apprenticeship Program to its dealers in the Agriculture & Turf and Construction & Forestry sectors. Deere is directly addressing a shortage in service technicians by lowering barriers to continuing education: bringing technical skill-building to work sites, allowing workers to learn while earning a paycheck, and pairing each participant with their own mentor. Additionally, workers who complete the program earn a nationally-recognized certification as a “journeyworker,” indicating that they are now equipped to perform job duties without supervision. 

Dealers who participate in this new program have a variety of partnership options—from local community colleges and labor organizations, to Deere’s existing TECH Program, which helps employees earn their associates degree while working. The company even helps dealers register with state and federal apprenticeship agencies quickly and easily, providing nationally-aligned registered apprenticeship guidelines, and offering technical assistance through Jobs For The Future

The skills required for farm labor continue to change as a result of the transition to digital agriculture. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural America” report, the adoption of digital tools across the healthcare, manufacturing, and education sectors (among others), could generate more than 360,000 jobs across rural America. Training programs and initiatives that help rural workers to develop digital skills for these new middle skill jobs on the farm, in the factory, and beyond are critical for creating new jobs, supporting the growth of the digital economy, and closing the digital divide.

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