A lack of communication between educators and rural businesses has resulted in a widening skills gap across the country
Farris Beasley stands in a barn on his 600-acre farm, pointing out equipment both ancient and modern and longing for the days when all of it was as easy to repair as his 1939 John Deere tractor.
Like Beasley, a retired large-animal veterinarian, farmers nationwide are hard-pressed these days to find mechanics trained to maintain their 21st-century equipment or workers who understand the complexities of modern farming or how to tend to cows or horses.
Here in Fayetteville, a rural community 80 miles south of Nashville, agriculture is by far the largest industry, generating at least $110m a year in surrounding Lincoln county. Until recently, though, the only college in town had no agriculture classes.
It’s a problem contributing to a widening skills gap in rural communities across the country: not only are rural high school graduates less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to go to college, higher education institutions in many of these places aren’t training them to fill the jobs that are their regions’ lifeblood.
In many cases, all sides agree, this is a result of a lack of communication and even a cultural divide between educators and farmers and other rural businesses. In others, colleges are putting a priority on turning out computer coders and other graduates with skills in demand further afield.
There’s another reason, too: many rural colleges just don’t have the money to run pricey programs in tractor repair or veterinary science, said Stephen Katsinas, a University of Alabama political science professor who directs the school’s educational policy center.
In many cases, they can afford to teach the basics, such as math or English, but not vocational skills that could help their local economies.
“You can do X or you can do Y or you can do Z, but you can’t afford to do X, Y and Z,” Katsinas said.
In addition to the shortages of people qualified to fix digital-era tractors, rural areas are having trouble finding veterinarians like Beasley who will stick around and spend their days wading through manure to treat cows and horses, when they can make more money tending in comparative comfort to suburban cats and dogs.
Beasley used to teach animal science at Motlow State Community College, which has a small campus in the hills on the outskirts of Fayetteville. But Motlow got rid of its agriculture program years ago – nobody can say why – and Beasley watched students go elsewhere for their educations.
“They left and probably after that even went somewhere else, maybe, to live and work and didn’t come back home, which is somewhat the story of rural America today,” he said.
Beasley wasn’t willing to let that happen to Fayetteville. When a new dean, Lisa Smith, took over the local Motlow campus, Beasley was on her doorstep immediately to proselytize for an agriculture program.
“We went to several commercial farms. We even went to the stockyard,” said Smith, who said she hadn’t been aware of agriculture’s dominance in her college’s community before arriving on the campus in 2016. “It had a huge impact. Why would we not have a program that addresses the No 1 industry in our area?”
Now Motlow does have one. The campus has teamed up with Tennessee State University in Nashville to let Lincoln county students earn first an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business or animal science at the community college, without having to leave town.
The program is starting out slowly – the college offered just one animal science course with eight students in the fall – but there are plans to expand to more than 30 students by next fall. Smith said she is looking for grants to pay for a new agriculture education facility on the Fayetteville campus, which consists of two boxy buildings next to an industrial park, just down the road from the Jack Daniel’s distillery and a Frito-Lay plant.
But follow-through can be challenging for rural colleges. Motlow attempted a similar partnership with another institution, Middle Tennessee State University, about eight years ago, but quickly scrapped it. Nobody at Motlow said they remembered the details, and Middle Tennessee State spokespeople and professors did not respond to repeated requests to discuss it.
Among the first Motlow students to take the new agriculture class was Taylor Howell, a sophomore from Fayetteville who didn’t grow up on a farm but is interested in food marketing.
Although Fayetteville is surrounded by farmland, some of her high school classmates made fun of kids who were interested in agriculture, Howell said.
“They just don’t understand where food comes from, I guess,” she said.
Just 59% of rural high school graduates enroll immediately in college, compared with 67% in suburban areas and 62% in urban areas, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Yet most of the jobs at the factories and farms that dominate rural areas now require some college education.
Communication between educators and industry leaders is essential. But those conversations happen much too rarely, according to Katsinas and others. In some cases, he said, that’s a result of “fractious turfism”, in which each side thinks it knows best how to solve workforce shortages and is unwilling to work with the other.
Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s community colleges are in rural areas, according to the Rural Community College Alliance, putting them in the best position to train rural residents for the jobs that make those communities run.
But even when they’re aware of local workforce needs, those colleges often have trouble meeting them. A college far from a major city often finds it tough to hire qualified instructors, for example. And the equipment and buildings required to teach agriculture, nursing or oil production are too expensive for many to afford.
In Tennessee, state officials are trying to help colleges in the most disadvantaged counties. The Supporting Postsecondary Access in Rural Counties, or SPparc, initiative is trying to boost college-completion rates by, among other measures, providing small grants to community colleges in “distressed counties”.
In tiny Lake county, for example, just 8% of adults have bachelor’s degrees or higher, far below the state’s 27% figure. A boat manufacturer recently relocated to the county but was having trouble finding qualified welders; Sparc paid for a welding instructor to travel to the remote county in the state’s north-western corner and train some as part of a dual enrollment partnership between a high school and technical college.
In addition to programs such as Sparc, solutions to rural workforce shortages require better communication between colleges and local farms and industries, say those involved.
Without that, Fayetteville rancher Brad Parton worries about the future of rural life. “Young people just don’t seem to care about where their food comes from,” he said as he dumped feed into troughs for his 25 cows.
“It’s one of those things where you think, that next generation, are they ready?” said Parton, who led the local high school’s Future Farmers of America chapter before recently taking a regional role with the organization. “A lot of those skills and trades aren’t being passed down.”
This story about rural higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.