Rural communities in Iowa and around the Midwest must concentrate on attracting and retaining skilled workers to remain viable in a changing and challenging economy, according to economists, site selection experts and others at a conference on rural workforce issues last week at the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank.

Labor availability remains a primary consideration when companies locate or expand operations, said Jerry Szatan, a leading site selection consultant. But companies today aren’t just looking for workers, they are looking for workers with skills, he said.

"There is going to be fewer jobs in rural communities going forward, but those jobs are going to be more highly skilled than in the past," Szatan said. "Companies want to know will there be enough people to hire with the skills I need."

Those advanced skills need to include the ability to operate and repair highly technical equipment, such as robotics and computer-driven machines, said Carolyn Hatch of Purdue University. "The global competitive climate has reshaped the way we work now," she said. "All workers now need to be able to work with computers and have other kinds of technical skills," she said.

Being creative

To attract and retain skilled workers, rural communities need to be more creative than their urban counterparts, according to George Corona, CEO of Kelly Services. "You’ve really got to differentiate your community from larger urban areas and look for the edge you do have," he said.

That often means highlighting shorter commute times, safety and lower housing costs that can make rural areas more attractive to workers, Corona said. It’s also important to try to keep local high school and college graduates in the community by touting lifestyle advantages, he said.

Both Corona and Szatan said that it was important for communities to work to create links between businesses and local schools, especially high schools and community colleges. "As the labor markets get more restricted, training is becoming more and more important," Corona said.

Those links between business and education, which make sense for rural communities, are often hard to find, said Hatch, who has been researching rural workforce issues.

"So far, we are not seeing a lot of collaboration between schools and businesses. But those that have worked hardest on the collaboration are the most successful," she said.

Working regionally

Another strategy is for communities to work regionally to attract and retain skilled workers, Szatan said. "If you look regionally and try to pool assets, you can make all of the communities look bigger," he said.

That, in turn, will make the community more attractive both to businesses and to skilled workers, Szatan said.