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Job Growth In Cities Leaves Rural Areas, Including Eastern Kentucky, Behind

Jackson County 1

Chad Tankersaley grew up in McKee, the seat of Jackson County in Eastern Kentucky.

The town of about 800 residents has places to eat and a single traffic signal — and few job prospects.

“If I have ever worked, I have had to go to the next town up,” Tankersaley said. “You go to the next town up, you got jobs, you got communities and you got stuff for people to do.”

But in much of rural Kentucky — and rural America — the next town up may not have many jobs, either. Major cities in the U.S. have enjoyed job creation in recent years, but the economic development has largely left rural parts of the country behind.

That’s according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which found that while there has been a decrease in unemployment across the board, employment in cities is still far outpacing rural towns across the country.

“Rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2 percent below its pre-recession peak in 2007,” the report states. “In contrast, urban employment rose nearly 2 percent in the past year, continuing a trend of consistent growth since 2011, and is now well above its pre-recession peak.”

James Ziliak, the director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, said decades of a shifting labor force is mostly to blame here. He said companies are continually looking for higher skilled workers.

“Rural America — including rural parts of the Commonwealth of Kentucky — have lagged behind in adequately investing in its people and keeping up with the changing demands of technology and the needs of firms,” Ziliak said.

In Kentucky, it’s easy to see this divide. Towns in rural Eastern Kentucky have long suffered, even more than 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the region to declare a "war on poverty."

Shane Gabbard, the newly elected-judge executive of Jackson County, said the area just doesn't have many jobs.

“Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of factories here right now,” he said. “We are working on that — trying to get some industry going and so we have a lot of people that have to commute out of the county to work.”

In fact, 66 percent of Jackson County's residents commuted out of the county in 2010, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

Most of the county's workers are employed in manufacturing and construction, followed by the public sector, according to the state Council on Postsecondary Education.

About 34 percent of Jackson County's residents live below the poverty line. That’s compared with less than 19 percent of the population statewide.

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Ziliak said towns like McKee are isolated and have small population, making it difficult to bring in the kind of investment in training and infrastructure needed to fix the underlying issues that keep the communities from thriving.

“When you are dealing with a relatively small labor market and one that’s isolated from more thriving urban areas, it’s an ongoing challenge to get the engine going for redevelopment and more job development,” he said.

Meanwhile, one of the traditional stalwarts of employment for Eastern Kentucky  — coal — has seen historic drops in employment in recent years.

Some community leaders see some hope for the area. The Internet, for example, provides an opening for training people to work remotely, possibly in tech jobs that don’t require someone to work at an office.

But Ziliak said that’s not going to completely solve the problem. He said even if someone has the skills to work in the tech industry, they are still going to need the social and networking connections in the industry — which are still mostly in larger urban cities.

“While on the one hand, things like the Internet and broadband should make it easier to do business in more rural isolated locations, it turns out that a lot of the growth and development in the knowledge economy is occurring actually in some of our largest cities,” Ziliak said.

On the other side of the state, there is a starkly different picture.

Louisville, for example, has been serious about retraining its residents for a high-skilled job market.

In fact, the city’s efforts even prompted a visit from President Obama this year.

One of the programs the city has invested in is Code Louisville: a free 12-week online coding workshop that anyone with a Louisville Free Public Library card can access.

The program doesn’t just give people free training, it also gets them in touch with professionals in the area that work in the tech industry. It combines investment in infrastructure, training and industry networking.

However, that’s not to say Louisville has nothing to overcome in its quest to become a tech-hub. Experts have saidin order for the city to lure or keep tech talent, it will also have to increase its “cool factor.”

Compared to the hurdles a rural town faces, though, Louisville’s ability to compete in the current labor market is leaps and bounds ahead.