AWS Public Sector Blog

Building tech skills and jobs in America’s rural communities

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2030 most of the United States’s economic and employment growth will be generated by 30 percent of the population, living and working in 25 mega regions. In the high-growth tech sector, employers cannot find enough urban employees to fill available jobs. Meanwhile, nearly 25 percent of Americans live in rural areas characterized by shrinking employment in traditional industries such as manufacturing and agriculture.

Is migration from rural areas to mega-cities the only solution? Do rural workers have the skills needed to transition to tech sector jobs? In this Q&A, Brendan Walsh of the 1901 Group talks to the AWS Institute about opportunities to build cloud technology skills and employment in rural communities in the United States. Brendan dispels some of the myths about barriers to rural skill building. He also identifies two key changes that are necessary for rural workers to effectively join the tech labor force: reliable rural internet connectivity and employer willingness to embrace remote work opportunities.

For more on this topic, watch the video:

Q: Brendan, in an article you wrote for Washington Technology, you say that the growth of cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT) can help to bridge the rural urban opportunity gap. What do you mean by that?

IoT means connectedness (like vehicles, security systems, and more) and cloud means distributed or remote, so when we have both, as we do today, the result is a world where everything is connected and human interactions such as learning, working, and socializing are inherently remote. This new normal is a dramatic shift away from the past where we learned in school buildings, worked in offices, and socialized in person—all of which encouraged concentration in urban locations. Now with global connectedness from IoT and remote capabilities from the cloud, there is less pressure to be in urban locations. In fact, in response to the pandemic, many organizations are considering rural expansion to reduce risks associated with crowded cities.

Q: When most people think about tech jobs, they think about IT workers in big cities. Can rural workers catch up with their urban counterparts in terms of IT skills and employment opportunities?

Skills development is not a time-limited, one-time-only transfer of knowledge. Today, technology is changing so fast that everyone must be learning on an ongoing basis. Whether you are entering the job market or you are changing career paths after 20 years, no one is too far behind to catch up. This is true whether you live in a big city or a small town. In addition, IT education is no longer as costly as it used to be. To accommodate the rapid rate of technological change, technology firms are providing extensive education resources at low or no cost. These courses provide individuals with highly sought after technology certifications and accreditations.

Q. There is also a belief that the sorts of skills you need for rural jobs won’t provide an adequate preparation for tech jobs. You say this isn’t true. Can someone really go from welder to cloud technician?

This is the easiest myth to bust. In rural America, curiosity, an interest in learning, and basic technical know-how are practically prerequisites for survival. Whether people are repairing trucks, running farms, or operating heavy equipment, these technical aptitudes can be applied to technology-oriented career paths.

At 1901 Group, we don’t just hire people with IT backgrounds. We look for inquisitive people who are innovators that don’t back down from technology and who want to learn and do. For example, one of the managers at our enterprise IT operations center in Blacksburg, Virginia used to be a professional welder. He started on our help desk and moved his way up an IT career ladder because of his interest in how workflows affected our service delivery, and also because of his really great work ethic.

Another story comes from our recent Cloud Pathways training program. One of our participants was working in retail but wanted a career in IT. After just eight weeks of training, she passed her AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam and accepted a full-time job as a software tester on our DevOps team, having gone from retail to cloud employment in less than three months. Today, she is working on mission applications through our contract with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Q: You mention that you are working with AWS re/Start on some of your initiatives in Virginia. Can you elaborate?

We share a common goal of reskilling for a changing economy and to strengthen Virginia’s economy by connecting people with job opportunities. We were excited when we learned about AWS re/Start and their efforts to help reskill individuals in rural communities. We have signed up as an employer to interview members and graduates of an AWS re/Start program being run in southwest Virginia, and hope to host future AWS re/Start classes at our facilities in Virginia.

Q: What are the top three things we can do to support positive change for our rural citizens and communities?

The displacement caused by COVID-19 means it is more important than ever to reach educators, public officials, employers, and, of course, rural individuals interested in IT careers. I believe we must focus on a few key action areas:

We must inform and share knowledge about what education, training, and career path options are available to individuals in rural communities.

We must participate in reskilling programs, such as Virginia Values Veterans V3, VA Ready, and AWS re/Start.

We must change our work policies and habits so that remote working or teleworking options are a realistic and sustainable options for workers and employers.

And, to achieve all this, federal, state, and local governments need to ensure that there is adequate, reliable internet access for all of our rural communities.

All of this will help strengthen our economy, build a resilient workforce, and help workers get skills for good jobs and, ultimately, thriving careers.

The 1901 Group is a member of the AWS Partner Network, an AWS Advanced Tier Consulting Partner, member of the Public Sector Partner Program, graduate of the AWS Partner Transformation Program (PTP), Government Competency holder, authorized AWS reseller, and AWS 50 Certified Member partner.

For learners and job seekers interested in IT and cloud computing, visit 1901 Group Future Workforce and Careers.

For employers searching for qualified talent check out AWS re/Start.

For educators/learners Interested in free cloud training content, learn more about AWS Educate.

For public officials interested in worker reskilling programs, check out VA Ready, Virginia Values Veterans V3, and AWS re/Start.

Laura Dawson

Laura Dawson

Laura Dawson is the Americas Director at the AWS Institute. She has more than twenty years’ experience working with government and policy leaders from around the world to build connections, share stories, and advance new ideas. She's previously worked as Director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, Senior Economic Advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Canada, and Director of Dawson Strategic.