Aiming for a Renaissance in Rural America

by Josh West / Apr 9, 2019

Those of us living in rural America, particularly in the Midwest, look around and observe that it is apparent where the jobs are—health care, manufacturing and agriculture. Rural communities are aging, so naturally health clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes are expanding. In Illinois, the greatest need for middle-skill workers has been identified in health professions (Advance CTE, 2019). Additionally, in this robust national economy, manufacturing has made a nice rebound and industries are desperate for workers. Meanwhile, agriculture, particularly in the Midwest, is struggling to recruit the next generation of workers to meet production demand. 

Rural community colleges are more critical than ever for training a skilled workforce and shrinking the skills gap."

With those economic conditions in mind, rural community colleges are more critical than ever for training a skilled workforce and shrinking the skills gap. These institutions offer opportunities for students to gain skills at an affordable cost and enter the workforce even after just one semester in school. Despite these opportunities, enrollment figures show that few men are pursuing a career in health care, few women are pursuing a career in manufacturing, and to a lesser extent, fewer women are pursuing agriculture. At Sauk Valley Community College (SVCC), 10% of students in the health science majors are male, 11% of students in the Multicraft Maintenance program are female, and 42% of students studying agriculture are female.

As a recipient of the Pathways to Results (PTR) grant, SVCC, which is located in rural northwestern Illinois, has implemented a marketing campaign built around the concept of a “renaissance man.” Effective outreach has been identified as a critical step in supporting males in rural areas who lag behind their female counterparts in educational attainment (Bray, Beer, & Calloway, 2019). The idea is for these men to expand their knowledge base to varied fields and combat gender stereotypes that contribute to extremely low numbers of males in the college’s Radiologic Technology program, as one example.

This campaign is especially focused on male veterans, given the large number within this group that live in rural communites (Bray et al., 2019). These individuals have worked as field medics and in a variety of other health-related positions in the military, making them a highly skilled group that can make significant contributions to rural economies (Bray et al., 2019). Why not hire a veteran in the Radiologic Technology program, for example, to help others see what can be accomplished in the job-seeking realm? We will know this spring if our marketing campaign spurred by PTR led to encouraging movements in this direction.

And what about the same “renaissance” concept for women? Sadly, even in 2019, gender plays a part in informing professional options for females. Women, for instance, are underrepresented in the state’s manufacturing programs (Fuller Hamilton, Malin, & Hackman, 2015). Graduates of SVCC’s Multicraft Maintenance program typically earn between $18 to $30 per hour. Similar to the heath care field, this is a decent amount of money in a worthy, sustainable career. Our college’s Multicraft Maintenance program includes more than 50 students, three of whom are women. By diversifying the program to include more females, we can advance gender equity in our workforce and fill needed positions in the area. 

The fields of health care, manufacturing, and agriculture continue to be bedrocks in rural economies. Rural community colleges, therefore, are vital for training individuals to meet local workforce needs. We cannot afford to limit their reach to half of the populace that is traditionally unaware of certain fields they can pursue.

To conclude, community colleges can help recruit students into nontraditional occupations—everyone should feel welcome to pursue any field of his or her choice, irrespective of gender. We can help foster this through marketing efforts geared toward students in nontraditional career fields, particularly as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) allows for career exploration as early as the fifth grade (Advance CTE, 2018). Doing so will help serve the dual mission of community colleges, which is to provide an outstanding education that leads to job opportunities and improve economic development within regions. 

Advance CTE (2019). State snapshots: Illinois.

Advance CTE (2018). Perkins V: Strengthening Career and Technical Educaiton for the 21st Century Act. Retrieved from

Bray, J., Beer, A., & Calloway, M. (2019). The rural male in higher education: How community colleges can improve education and economic outcomes for rural men. Washington, D.C., Association of Community College Trustees.

Fuller Hamilton, A., Malin, J., & Hackman, D. (2015). Racial/ethnic and gender equity patterns in Illinois high school career and technical education coursework. Journal of Career and Technical Education 30(1), 29-52.