A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ron Daley: Rural communities don’t dream ‘big enough,’ miss out on great opportunities

Rural communities miss great opportunities when their leaders and citizens do not dream big enough.

One of our problems in not making “Appalachian Kentucky Great Again” has been thinking too small and scaling down our dreams and expectations. Congressman Hal Rogers has had a big vision for bringing the digital economy for nearly 10 years but, often our organizations and citizens have been slow to implement this transformation in our economy. The plans for expanded broadband enables this vision to become reality.

After a year or so when Congressman Rogers used the term ”Silicon Holler” I hosted the New Economy summit in East Kentucky on October 20, 2007 at Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC). Over 150 people attended, many of them key decision makers, to listen to Rep. Rogers’ keynote and participate in the planning sessions.

As director of the University Center of the Mountains, I generated a summit report which included over 80 recommendations to enable the New Economy. After reading the report in 2008 HCTC President Allen Goben had the idea to create the Distance Earning Initiative in which people would be trained to work from their home or in business incubators using broadband to work remotely (tele-work) for firms around the nation and world.

We followed President Goben’s charge to make it a reality by building a team of college faculty and staff. We essentially created a plan of action in 2008-2009 using a grant application to the U.S. Department of Labor to flesh out our thinking and get funding. We then engaged the local workforce investment board to participate. Our application was not approved because the Department of Labor would only fund grants to train existing workforces in your region…we were ahead of their thinking.

Our vision was to create and train a new digital workforce focusing on jobs with annual salaries exceeding $60,000. We were aware that we could land remote jobs in customer service or call center type with salaries ranging from $10 to $15 per hour, but we knew if we were to transform the region we needed the higher paying wages. We would take the “low hanging fruit” lower wage jobs while remaining focused on the better ones.

Our plan had five key components: publicize, attract, and build a talent pool; find the gaps in the talent pool and train them for high paying jobs; recruit companies desiring remote workers; connect our local talent to these firms or individuals; and locate affordable or free spaces for the persons to work remotely.

A local bank endorsed our vison and gave $50,000 for an endowment fund to support incubator space for the Distance Earning Initiative, other banks and businesses offered space and our college made plans for incubator space on campuses.

Kudos to the local workforce investment board (East KY Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) which awarded us $150,000 to launch the project and hire a director. This was an excellent example of a community college and a workforce investment board collaborating.

We hired a young Eastern Kentuckian who had the ideal skill set which included marketing. Our college team gave him support, but, he was essentially a one man show. He hosted winter evening meetings in counties throughout the mountains to job seekers and attract talent while also visiting and calling firms employing remote workers. He and the program exceeded our expectations. We were accomplishing something in a broad, rural area that was bold and had not been attempted before. Our big dreams were becoming realized.

We passed the East Kentucky Distance Earning Initiative on to the local workforce investment board after we had new leadership at the college. He continued to excel in the work but took on new duties at another community college. The program has continued with success and changed its name to East KY Teleworks and now to Teleworks USA.

Our communities need to learn more about the digital economy and not let others lessen their expectations for job growth if Teleworks and other digital job initiatives maximize their potential. We need to understand what the emerging and new jobs will become. For instance coding is a good example of jobs in the New Economy. However, there are many job beyond coding and with greater financial reward.

Natasha B. Watts, the program coordinator and instructor in Visual Communication at Hazard Community and Technical College encouraged us to think more expansive in coding at the “Big Ideas Fest in Education, Workforce and Economic Development”, hosted by the KY Valley Educational Cooperative in Hazard in September, 2016.

Watts said, “What use is a tool if you cannot understand what it is, or how it works? Those who build websites do just that, they get it working, put a structure in place, and they make it exist in a physical way. From there someone else has to make it usable and appealing for a mass audience. Creating a sea of coders will only cause us to produce 1,000 hammers that no one understands how to use. Creating a river of coders, and a stream of designers will allow us to form an ocean of people who can create end-to-end business facing projects.”

We need to grow our digital talent pool and have a “talent density” for innovation hubs for creative people working together, cooperating in tech start-ups, creating new jobs, and working remotely. While doing this, all of us who have contacts in Silicon Valley or with major employers should collaborate and recruit these firms to hire our people. Our educational systems need to encourage and empower more students into entrepreneurism and we need to revisit our workforce training systems. We must train for jobs of the future . .many times for jobs that does not exist now or that our kids will be creating for themselves.

Telework is a hot economic remedy now in our region which has lost many high-paying coal and coal related jobs. It needs to be supported by our communities and officials along with entrepreneurial tech start-ups, incubator spaces, and actions to keep our bright millennial talent at home which will drive the New Economy. Each county needs to form “New Economy” planning teams and work regionally with other teams. Communities need to be the leaders and not sit back and wait for other groups or organizations to do the work. We need to embrace entrepreneurial thinking and help people start new businesses or expand existing ones.

We are very fortunate that our school teachers understand the changing economy and have embraced the role of being mentors for the New Economy workforce. They need to be supported in their efforts.

Let us think big, dream big, and not be afraid of the extra work to create better opportunities to bring Congressman Rogers’ vison of Silicon Holler to full fruition.

Ron Daley is the strategic partner lead for the KY Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortia of 21 K-12 school districts. He has been working in the 16 counties of their service area to secure KY Work Ready Community status and form New Economy work groups in those counties.

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