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Rural Experts Hopeful About Future Workforce
By Jana Foust,
Southern Rural Development Center
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The future of the rural Southern workforce show signs of hope, but rural development specialists temper hope with caution as the new millennium approaches.
"The 1990s have shown a significant migration of people to the rural South that have higher levels of education and income," said Dr. Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University.
"More and more people are being attracted to the rural South because of the natural amenities that it has to offer," Beaulieu said. "Some come for a higher quality of life; others come to find work."
Between 1990 and 1996, about 1.6 million more Americans moved away from the city than to it and another 227,000 moved to rural areas from other countries. This information is reported in "Ready or Not? The Rural South and Its Workforce," a joint publication of the SRDC and the Tennessee Valley Authority Rural Studies Program at the University of Kentucky.
In addition to more well-educated people moving to the rural South, lower numbers of young people are leaving for urban areas.
"Some of the best and brightest students are returning after graduation," Beaulieu said. "This offers hope for new leadership in the future. Technology is offering them ways to work without being strapped to a job located elsewhere."
Under-education is linked to a lack of advancement in the workforce, the report said. Low skill labor that is offered by many part-time positions often makes it hard to move ahead in the workforce.
"Many people become entrenched in the low skill labor force and find it hard to climb the career ladder," Beaulieu said.
The gap of racial inequality between education levels also is lessening, the report said. Dr. Leif Jensen, associate professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University and a contributor to the report, agrees.
"Southern education levels in general have increased recently, and the difference in high school graduation levels between white and black students is declining," Jensen said.
Even though conditions for the rural Southern workforce are improving, Jensen said analysts should use caution in focusing on the positive without considering some negatives.
"We still have to view the skill level of the workforce with concern as well as with hope," Jensen said. "Though the future shows promise, many laborers in the rural South remain underemployed. This includes the working poor, those working full-time for wages barely above poverty levels and those working part-time because of a lack of full-time positions."
In addition to underemployment, rural Southern workers also make only 74 cents for every dollar earned by workers in urban areas.
"The wage gap between rural and urban areas is a critical issue with no easy solution," Jensen said.
"The gap occurs because of a combination of limited education and the industries seeking low wage workers," Beaulieu said.
Printed copies of the report are available from the TVA Rural Studies Program by calling (606) 257-1872. The report also can be accessed online as an Adobe Acrobat file at http://www.rural.org.