United States: Growing The Talent Pipeline For Rural Investment

Every community is unique, so it stands to reason that the labor force within each community—and the challenges they face—would be unique as well. Creating a pipeline of labor that has the specific, critical skills required to attract certain industries can prove to be challenging, especially in rural communities. But a disciplined approach to evaluating the local labor market will be a deciding factor as to whether your community ultimately experiences growth or loses business to other communities that are more prepared.

Rural communities will want to focus on aligning their workforce development strategies with their business attraction strategies. In doing so, remember that it's equally important to know what you aren't—and what you are. For example, you may not want to claim that you're the next biotech manufacturing hub when your location doesn't have a university, a research center or a modernized hospital. If, however, you find that your location is particularly suited for a certain business after conducting a thorough assessment of your workforce and target industries, data-driven research and the ability to provide unique solutions and amenities will be integral to securing an industry target's site selection.

There's a four-step process that will help you define what you are and grow your talent pool to increase your chances of attracting your targeted companies. It starts with knowing your numbers, then assessing your numbers. After a thorough analysis of your data, you can develop strategies to fill gaps in your pipeline and start attracting businesses.

1. Know Your Numbers

Analyzing the right type and vintage of data can be a major differentiator between successful and unsuccessful site selection in rural communities. Start your process by analyzing your assets as a community. "Know thyself" is key:

  • Review Publicly Available Data for Your Community
    • Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), American Fact Finder, U.S. Census
  • Review Community Websites
    • Economic development, Workforce development, Chamber of Commerce
  • Ask Four Questions:
    • Is the data available? Is the data accurate? Is the data on the various websites consistent? Is the data current?

When analyzing the data, be careful of its limitations. Typically, publicly available data (e.g., U.S. Census, BLS, American Fact Finder) are free; however, there can be lag times between collection, analysis and publication. Private sources of data are generally more expensive to access but tend to be more current.

2. Assess Your Talent Pipeline

While data can be scarce in rural communities, it's still imperative to conduct thorough research. Using public data available through BLS's Geographic Profile of Employment and Unemployment, you can assess your own labor force by several demographic factors, including education attainment, age, employment status and other factors.

Assess Your Community's Talent Pipeline Using These Three Steps:

  1. Gather current and accurate data about the labor in your community
  2. Analyze the data using absolute values as well as comparisons to competitors and national averages
  3. Forecast your future pipeline by tracking your students from high school through college and even graduate studies.

Once you have gathered occupation data for your community, you will need to assess the supply, demand, and skills of those occupations. As you survey the data you've gathered, first start with a high-level perspective: Does the data show that there is enough labor with the skills your target industry needs in this location now, and for the future? What types of jobs are posted and how many are recruiting versus how many are graduating each year? Are your graduates leaving the community for particular places, schools or for military service?

3. Filling in the Gaps

Finding innovative solutions to help develop local, out-of-the-box solutions will be a key factor in attracting leading businesses to your rural community. It's important to develop short-term, near-term and long-term strategies for creating a pipeline of continuous talent.

  • Short-term (ready to work): Think about attracting military members separating from active duty1.
  • Near-term (about to enter workforce): Retain your students and millennials with community development initiatives2.
  • Long-term (future workforce): Implement a Marshall Plan for K-14 talent development3.

4. Tout Your Talent

One of the main challenges for rural communities to attract businesses can be described by Pareto's Principle, sometimes known as the 80/20 rule. When applied to the geographic distribution of businesses looking to relocate, it asserts that 80% of the development projects go to 20% of the communities. This principle has many applications, and often with surprising accuracy. Business development across communities is no exception.

There are several reasons for this lopsided distribution, with uneven availability of labor force data being a leading factor. Simply put, it's difficult to find enough information about rural areas, so the least risky solution for businesses is to invest in communities with the most publicly available information.

However, as more and more consumers have turned to online shopping to fill their needs, the internet has come to provide a compelling solution for rural communities. Now, goods in lower demand can find niche buyers from far-away places. Before the onset of Amazon, for example, your local bookstore only carried the most popular books because the owners only invested in book titles they knew would sell. Amazon made it possible for consumers to find an obscure title and have it delivered to their home, a trend that has obviously grown into a massive cultural shift in how we purchase things. This is why we are starting an online marketplace so corporate site selectors can find pockets of highly-skilled associates amongst the 80% of the rural areas that are often overlooked.

Ensure Your Workforce Can Meet the Needs of Today's Economy

Finding talent that suits your industry target's needs—for the long-term—will require detailed research into the data around local populations and labor potential. You'll want your data to reflect things like current and future labor availability, job classification requirements and net migration and population growth, as well as education and training strength, cultural amenities and commuter patterns.

Today's well-prepared communities are also improving coordination with local colleges and universities, stumping for K-12 programs that are devoted to career-oriented vocational pursuits, and expanding access to workforce training. Accentuating initiatives like these can have a huge impact for companies looking to identify and invest in communities with the best workforce to suit their needs.


1. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, there are 230,000 to 245,000 service members who leave active duty each year and transition to civilian life. Consider researching these resources: Military One Source (https://www.militaryonesource.mil/military-life-cycle/separation-transition); Soldiers for Life – Transition Assistance Program (https://www.sfl-tap.army.mil/); and Army PaYs – Guaranteed Job Interviews post active duty commitment (https://www.goarmy.com/benefits/after-the-army.html)

2. Refer to the Michigan State University Study, Chasing the Past or Investing in Our Future (https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/chasing_the_past_or_investing_in_our_future_full_report). The Study describes the "prosperity formula" and the expected ROI for investments in public amenities. Returns are described in population growth, job growth and per capital income.

3. Learn more about the Marshall Plan for Talent here: https://www.michigan.gov/ted/0,5863,7-336-85008---,00.html

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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