This is a Good Time to Dream Big

By Josh Seidemann, VP of Policy, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association

Depending on your source, the U.S. economy is either suffering or exhibiting great strengths. Prospects for workers are either dim, or dramatically good. Robots will either replace us, or open new opportunities (I side with the latter). So, it was with that perspective that I buckled down for a strategic planning session with the board of NREDA (National Rural Economic Developers Association) this past week. Because if there is anyone who can unravel a good approach toward building economic strength in rural America, it is this group of rural telecom providers, electric providers and economic development experts. 

The final results of the discussion have yet to be delivered, but it is no surprise that words like “collaboration,” “education” and “training” emerged often on large Post-It notes that eventually papered the walls. Sagely, one person observed that we tend to think about economic development as resting within the jurisdiction of businesses, but that in fact educators have a role to play, as well. The evolving job market must be met with evolving educational curricula, and a partnership among educators and industry to develop training (or, even better, internship and apprenticeship opportunities) can be an important step.

To be sure, rural telecom providers have been working at these issues in their communities. And you can learn about that at RTIME later this month, when Smart Rural CommunitiesSM and the Foundation for Rural Service host “Rural Advancement: Opportunities in Education, Workforce and Healthcare,” featuring rural telecom providers and a USDA expert in education.

What’s at stake? Consider the good news – the NFIB: Small Business Association found that in November 2019, 16% of small business owners expect better business conditions in the coming term. And what is the biggest challenge for small businesses? Finding qualified workers. Nearly a third of small businesses reported increasing compensation for workers, and while the rate of businesses planning wage increases declined, a net 24% still plan raises in the coming months.

For a telling overview, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published “The American Dream is Alive and Well” in last weekend’s edition. Among the article’s declarations? The “hollowing out” of the middle class is “mostly  a story of upward mobility.” In other words, the middle class is shrinking because wages and wealth are  increasing.

Now, and to be sure, this does not mean that all is well. Attention must be paid to both middle-skill jobs and other occupations on the scale. But the data indicate that (as one should expect) the dissection of overall economic conditions is a complex task and addressing it must be calibrated to meet the needs of the relevant populations and communities. As the leading rural economic development association, NREDA is an important voice and NTCA is proud to participate.

A final thought, articulated well by the WSJ: “This is not a call for complacency. The American Dream always needs to be renewed because every generation faces different challenges . . . Americans living today have every reason to optimistic – and grateful.”

So dream big. The prospects are good.