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The Maine Community College System will launch a free training program to prepare over 700 rural students for remote jobs over the next three years.

Students living in rural areas of the state will be able to take six- to nine-month-long online courses in fields especially conducive to remote work, such as IT support, customer service and medical transcription. Participants will receive training and earn a certificate in remote work skills. The program will also offer a certificate course for supervisors on how to manage remote workers.

Administrators plan to start the Remote Work for ME program next January with a cohort of about 60 rural students. The $1.2 million program will be funded by a $535,000 seed grant from Ascendium Education Group, a philanthropic organization focused on postsecondary education, as well as funds from the John T. Gorman Foundation, the community college system and its foundation.

“Over the years Maine has tried a variety of ways to bring jobs to rural communities,” John Fitzsimmons, president of the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges, said in a press release. “Through the advancement of technology, along with the support of employers, we can now connect urban-based companies with skilled workers working remotely. This is a win-win for both Maine employers and rural workers.”

The initiative is an outgrowth of the pandemic and the ways it appears to be reshaping the norms of American work culture. Employees across the country left their offices in droves in spring 2020 because of COVID-19. More than a year later, some workers may never go back to spending full weeks in the office. The percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double in 2021, according to a survey by the market research firm Enterprise Technology Research.

Dan Belyea, chief workforce development officer at the Maine Community College System, called this shift a “cultural transformation.” He said that many employees were “thrown into” working remotely during the pandemic without any preparation for the unique challenges of working partly or entirely from home, but going forward, students can be methodically taught how to thrive in a remote work environment.

“We want to train folks not only to do a job that’s in the range of remote work, but we want to train students in how to be highly successful and efficient,” he said. “That’s going to take a new set of skills. How do you work with folks that you may not necessarily see every day? How do you communicate? How do you project manage your work? How do you keep yourself motivated?”

Four of the colleges in the Maine Community College System are in rural areas, and all seven of them serve rural students, Belyea said.

The trend toward remote work could have particular advantages for rural communities experiencing population loss due to outmigration. Populations in many rural areas have been thinning for decades as college graduates leave in search of higher-paying jobs in cities.

Many of these students don’t actually want to leave, said Kai A. Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University.

“The highest-achieving students from rural areas are also often those young people who are most connected with their communities,” he said. “I think in many cases, kids from rural areas would be happy to stay in the places that they’re from, or go somewhere else and return to those places, but there has to be some kind of economic opportunity as well.”

Remote work may be a way for alumni to use the credentials they earned in college and remain in the rural areas where they grew up, said Mara Tieken, associate professor of education at Bates College.

“One of the challenges with rural college-going is it exacts a higher cost on rural kids and rural families, because oftentimes going to college may mean getting a degree that can be really hard to put to use in your rural place,” she said.

She noted that universities too often have an “urban-centric bias” and steer students toward leaving rural areas. For example, many four-year institutions build their alumni networks, offer internships and advertise jobs predominantly in cities.

“Really meaningfully addressing that will take some deliberate work across colleges, really thinking about how are we urban-centric in our networking? How can we shift that?” Tieken said. “With remote work, that might be easier.”

Higher education leaders and lawmakers have put a particular emphasis on supports for rural students in the last few years. For example, the University of North Carolina system set a goal in January 2017 to enroll 11 percent more students from rural and low-income counties and to increase these students’ degree attainment by 20 percent in the system's strategic plan through 2022. Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, and Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, introduced a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate last year to create a demonstration program intended to encourage rural students to pursue higher education, graduate and enter the workforce.

A new research alliance was formed in January to study rural regional colleges. Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization focused on community college student success, in February announced a new initiative, called Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work, to help rural colleges provide students with work skills and connect students to well-paying jobs.

There are over 260 rural community colleges in the United States, which educate nearly 670,000 students a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, nearly 41 million American adults live at least 25 miles from the nearest college or university or in places where one community college is the only source of broad-access public higher education in that area, according to the Urban Institute. Rural community colleges suffer from disparities in local, state and federal funding, access to broadband internet, and student basic needs and mental health resources, according to a 2021 report from the Association of Community College Trustees.

Tieken pointed to spotty broadband access in rural areas as a possible obstacle for students as industries move toward remote work. Only two-thirds of rural Americans report having broadband access at home, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study.

Belyea said he expects students to face these kinds of challenges, but the Remote Work for ME program will provide students with laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots as needed, free of charge, and students can keep the equipment after the program.

“As we did for our students during the pandemic, we’re going to make sure that’s not a barrier for them,” he said.

Other community college leaders are also considering new ways to give rural students access to remote work opportunities.

For example, Cloud County Community College in Kansas is now providing a coding certificate program in partnership with Rural & Remote, which trains remote workers in rural areas. The 50-hour, noncredit program will introduce students to HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Command Line and other programming languages. This is the first time the college has offered a curriculum in coding and web design.

“This opportunity aligns with the college’s mission to prepare students to lead successful lives and enhance the vitality of our communities,” Amber Knoettgen, president of Cloud County Community College, said in a press release.

Maria Dahlquist, Rural & Remote tech lead for northwest Kansas, said in the release that the partnership is focused on reaching students who want to pursue a career where they can live anywhere -- such as rural Kansas. The curriculum is designed for students of all experience levels, "even if you’ve never written code in your life."

Charles Terrell, the outgoing president of Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, said institution leaders have been exploring the idea of creating a hub for telecommuters in technology fields on campus.

In 2018, the college began renting space on campus to the Washington, D.C.-based technology firm ISMS Solutions, and in return, the company recruits students that work in the on-campus site. Terrell believes this can be a broader model where employers set up outposts on campus that offer jobs to students and graduates in the area. That way, students can telecommute to companies based elsewhere while working in a social, nonisolating environment with secure internet access. Simultaneously, the college can design training programs that meet these companies’ needs, he said.

He described his vision as a “cross-pollination between education and employers,” a community college “plus almost a technology park.”

“This becomes a recruitment pipeline for students to be able to work for an employer on-site, like ISMS, and know that they’re doing this at home in their community and not having to go and find jobs in Northern Virginia or D.C. or along the Beltway,” he said. For students in counties near the college with poor internet access, the campus may have better internet access than they have at home. “The college not only becomes a source for education but the site where they may be employed by another employer.”

Belyea, of the Maine Community College System, said he envisions the Remote Work for ME program as a model that can be replicated at other colleges that serve rural students and aim to help them succeed in a shifting work landscape.

“We’ve attempted to lower every barrier we can imagine to allow someone to access this program, access the equipment needed to be involved in this training and the ability to bridge the skills gap that they may have and provide a real wage for themselves and their families,” he said.

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