Achieving the Dream’s Cindy Lopez, executive director of network engagement, and Meredith Archer Hatch, director of network relations, recently joined the Rural Matters podcast to talk about the Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work initiative, which includes seven rural Network colleges developing plans to prepare students and colleges for the future of work. The episode was part of an eight-part series on rural higher education and workforce development and, in addition to host Michelle Rathman, they were joined by Sarah Cacicio of Digital Promise and Mark Rembert of the Rural Innovation Network at the Center on Rural Innovation.
The discussion covered the changing landscape around rural colleges and economies, how colleges are leading the way to scale up digital skills to meet employers’ needs, and how college leaders are partnering with businesses in their communities to best match the digital skills needed for the jobs in their regions to expand economic opportunity.
“There are a couple of big shifts that are taking place … including increased recognition from community college leaders that most jobs, and especially the better paying ones … will require digital skills. This has created urgency for them to help their communities understand what these skills are and reform their own institutions in ways that will help them deliver these skills,” Lopez said.
Lopez shared an example from Amarillo College President Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart about how he is developing high-impact partnerships with regional business leaders to help educate the local business community about the need for digital skills for successful careers and about the upscaling of his own colleges, faculty, and staff.
“This is really important. Current faculty skill sets might not meet current workforce needs so colleges have to invest and empower their own faculty in the skills and understanding so in turn they can empower their students,” Lopez said.
Speaking to the why around the importance of this work, Hatch said colleges create connections in communities, catalyze resources, and play a critical role that drives social and economic mobility. Tangible examples include Clovis Community College in New Mexico adapting to specific needs, who Hatch said “responded to the high demand for digital skills by developing short term coding programs, in partnership with Google and Apple, and they’re also developing a cyber security program at the institution.”
She also highlighted that when coal production dropped in the rural region surrounding Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, the college moved to find opportunities for their community by providing skill-building for remote work in health care
Lopez noted that the pandemic has caused the expansion of reliable broadband to rural areas to be addressed much more intentionally, but that more needs to be done in order to assure economic opportunity in rural areas.
“Progress has been made in getting reliable and faster service in homes, businesses and schools, and electronic devices into the hands of students,” Lopez said. “However, as Diverse magazine recently highlighted, 68 percent of Americans living on rural tribal lands, still lack access to broadband. And the average speed internet at tribal colleges is 336 megabytes per second, compared to that at mainstream institution, mainstream four-year institutions, which is 3.5 gigabytes per second.”
ATD Network colleges that are part of the Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work initiative include Berkshire Community College, Clovis Community College, Columbia-Greene Community College, Halifax Community College, Louisiana State University-Eunice, Northwest Mississippi Community College, and Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.