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From Site Selection magazine, September 2017

New Analysis Reveals Top Rural Counties for Workforce Certificates

And a new definition of wealth could reveal a path forward for rural areas everywhere.

Photo: Getty Images
“Here’s the deal: It really doesn’t matter how much you pour into these places. If you can’t retain young people, it’s over.”
— Charles Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa, in New Republic, March 2017

Companies keep repeating the lament: Qualified, skilled workers are hard to find. Rural America begs to differ: Good jobs are hard to find.

When the Pew Research Center and the Markle Foundation published The State of American Jobs in October 2016, more than three-quarters of adults living in rural communities told them good jobs are hard to come by where they live, compared with 62 percent of those living in urban or suburban communities.

Is there a way for those working-age adults out in the hinterlands to demonstrate their aptitude and their community’s readiness for corporate investment? There is.

Top States by Combined Rural and Micropolitan National Career Readiness Certificates (NCRCs)

State Total NCRCs ranking
NC 56,748 1
SC 27,199 2
WI 23,848 3
MS 23,304 4
KY 23,029 5
MI 22,991 6
OK 21,301 7
OH 18,186 8
IA 16,561 9
AL 15,357 10

Site Selection readers are familiar with the workforce development work of Iowa-based ACT, best known for its literal rite-of-passage test administered to high-schoolers nationwide. The ACT® WorkKeys® National Career Readiness Certificate® (WorkKeys NCRC®) is an assessment-based credential earned through scores on three ACT WorkKeys assessments (Applied Math, Graphic Literacy, and Workplace Documents) that measure widely applicable foundational employability skills. It is awarded in four levels that correspond to the overall readiness levels of the individual worker.

Having a ready pool of NCRCs handy when a company comes calling can be an important first step in demonstrating an area’s suitability for a job-creating project, be it a customer services center, manufacturing plant or logistics operation. Usually those numbers are evaluated at the state or metro level. But what if you’re not a metro, or even a micropolitan area?

We asked Debra Lyons, principal strategist, workforce engagement external engagement at ACT, if the NCRC data were available at the county level. Before we knew it, she’d sent us what we’d asked for, from all 3,145 counties, parishes and boroughs (plus DC) in the nation. We asked our editorial database administrator Daniel Boyer to run the data through our latest matrix of official metropolitan and micropolitan area definitions from the U.S. Census Bureau, and filter out the counties that didn’t fall within either category.

How many counties is that? A total of 1,931, it turns out, or just over 61 percent of the nation’s counties. Ranking them by total NCRCs produced the charts you see here of the Top 20 Counties by Total NCRCs (as of early this year) and Top States by Total NCRCs in Rural Counties.

Top States by Rural-County-Only NCRCs

State Total NCRCs ranking
KY 35,155 1
IA 23,162 2
WI 20,824 3
NC 20,120 4
SC 19,151 5
OK 18,208 6
AL 16,404 7
MS 15,254 8
MO 11,064 9
LA 10,708 10

What’s that you say? Micropolitan areas are rural? Indeed, many would agree. So we ran the numbers again, incorporating micropolitan areas, and offer those rankings too.

“Rural communities benefit from being able to align the skills of their workers to the skills needed by local employers, giving them an economic advantage to support existing industry and to attract new companies,” says Lyons. “When individual skills are aligned to the skills needed for a job, workers tend to learn job-related tasks more quickly, benefit from on-the-job training and obtain new knowledge and skills.”

In addition, individuals are able to use the ACT® Curriculum®, an on-line tool many communities make available to individuals at no cost, to improve their foundational skills ahead of taking the WorkKeys assessments or to improve their certificate level. More than 4 million individuals have earned an NCRC in the US. 

New Definitions

Another way to demonstrate rural America’s aptitude for helping companies create value is to consider redefining what wealth is in the first place.

Top US Rural Counties by NCRCs

State County Total NCRCs ranking
NC Sampson 2,851 1
LA Avoyelles Parish 2,815 2
OK McCurtain 2,809 3
MS Monroe 2,682 4
SC Chesterfield 2,578 5
NC Duplin 2,450 6
AL DeKalb 2,272 7
OK Mayes 2,234 8
SC Barnwell 2,156 9
AK Kenai Peninsula Borough 2,139 10

Charles W. Fluharty is the founder, president, and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), based at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. A forthcoming paper by Fluharty and colleagues at RUPRI titled “Rural Wealth: A Comprehensive Framework” begins with this intriguing epigraph:

“We need to measure what we value, not value what we measure.”

In essence, the report proposes to define wealth in a fashion that goes beyond a region’s GDP or median household income. Why? Because they don’t account for “critical non-economic factors that contribute mightily to societal well-being,” say the authors. A re-thought rural wealth framework (RWF) includes eight distinct types of assets or “capital” that they cay create the basis for improving well-being in the future:

  • Physical capital is the stock of “built capital,” including equipment, buildings, roads, bridges, telecommunications networks and other infrastructure. 
  • Financial capital is the stock of money and other liquid financial assets such as stocks, bonds, letters of credit — net of financial liabilities — that can be readily converted to money. 
  • Human capital is the stock of productive capabilities of a population embodied in the education, skills, talents, and health status of that population. 
  • Intellectual capital is the stock of human knowledge, innovation, and ideas that is embedded throughout a society. Examples include various types of intellectual property such as patents and copyrights as well as “common knowledge”. 
  • Political capital is the stock of influence, power, and goodwill held by individuals, groups, and organizations that can be held, spent, or shared to achieve specific goals.  
  • Natural capital is the stock of resources provided by Mother Nature.
  • Social capital is the stock of trust, relationships, and networks found in our civil society.  
  • Cultural capital is the stock of practices, values, and sense of identity embedded in a society. Tangible examples include works of art, architecture, and places of cultural significance such as monuments. Intangible examples include beliefs, traditions, and practices that distinguish and identify groups of people and their values and identity.

Top US Rural and Micropolitan Counties by NCRCs

State County Total NCRCs ranking
NC Robeson 6,737 1
SC Greenwood 5,824 2
SC Orangeburg 5,204 3
MS Lee 4,157 4
NC Cleveland 4,083 5
SC Oconee 4,080 6
WI Walworth 3,658 7
NC Lenoir 3,445 8
NC Harnett 3,242 9
SC Georgetown 3,180 10

Among the RWF’s guiding considerations is the recognition that certain assets are mobile and certain assets are not, as well as the influence of property rights can be strong, depending on whether the owner is local or from outside the locality. Equally important is the recognition that the capitals are discrete concepts, but can be inter-related. Economic development is one illustration of the paper’s assertion that “the greatest impacts typically occur when the potential synergy across these capitals is recognized and catalyzed.”

What are the implications of the RWF?

“The narrative surrounding rural America is often negative,” they conclude, “emphasizing the outmigration of rural youth, the lower educational attainment of the rural population and the high rate of poverty in rural America. This narrative, while not necessarily inaccurate, is also problematic. First, this narrative paints rural America with a very broad brush. Rural America is amazingly diverse, and while many rural areas and regions struggle others are thriving. 

“Second, this drumbeat of negativity, focusing on liabilities, makes it difficult to focus on the potential within rural America. The Rural Wealth Framework does just the opposite. By focusing on the totality of assets within rural America it becomes much easier to envision a positive future. Identifying the rich and broad array of assets and then linking and leveraging these assets in new, creative, and innovative ways bodes well for the future of rural America. When this happens, both rural and urban areas are the beneficiaries.”

Adam Bruns
Editor in Chief of Site Selection magazine

Adam Bruns

Adam Bruns is editor in chief and head of publications for Site Selection, and before that has served as managing editor beginning in February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


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