When it comes to rural economies, it is up to us to change our thinking

Published 10:34 am Friday, April 13, 2018

Every month the state of Kentucky releases county unemployment statistics. Every month the same fact emerges — Eastern Kentucky, as a whole, lags behind the rest of the state.

The latest numbers demonstrate the unemployment statistics are up slightly in our immediate area. Boyd County’s unemployment rate was at 6.4 percent, Greenup County is at 7.6 percent and Carter County is at 10 percent for February of this year. Those numbers have risen slightly in the last couple of months.

Take that for what it is worth. Discerning the overall strength of economies, county by county, based on monthly numbers is not really a great way to paint a full picture of what is going on. The numbers regularly fluctuate and a single setback in one county — say involving the closure of one medium-sized business — could feasibly impact these numbers significantly. The Pew Research Center reminds us that a lot of other statistics can be very valuable when assessing the strength of the economy. Those numbers can include labor force participation rates, employment-population ratios, average weekly wages, average hours worked, etc.

Email newsletter signup

But there are a couple of facts that are abundantly clear in both county unemployment statistics and pretty much all of the economic data when you put them under the microscope. Fact one — Eastern Kentucky as a region always has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state. Fact 2 — Both in the state, and nationally, rural America is falling further behind, and it is only going to get worse unless we completely rethink the way we approach the issue of economy.

Solving these alarming trends is a very complex conundrum. One bright spot in the immediate term is the fact that there is a growing demand for tradespeople — electricians, plumbers, welders, etc., and Ashland Community & Technical College and our other educational institutions are doing a great job on this front in training these workers for jobs of the future.

Another bright spot is Gov. Matt Bevin and the state showing solid leadership in helping to attract Braidy Industries to the region. This is another component of growing: bringing to the region entrepreneurial spirit on a big level like that of Braidy is beyond smart. If it requires significant investment by the taxpayer, it makes sense even if there is risk involved.

Another wise investment — although it may not seem like it right now — is pursuing projects like Kentucky Wired. The troubled internet connectivity project is just that, troubled, and is starting to look like a fiscal boondoggle. But if the state can somehow find a way to make this project work despite obvious flaws in a questionable public private partnership, over the long haul, the money will be well spent. The economy of the future will increasingly be about digital connectivity and less and less about heading down to the local plant for an eight hour shift. We don’t necessarily like this trend, but it is the new reality, and getting all of our rural communities connected is a huge, huge step that needs to be taken.

When it comes to Eastern Kentucky and rural areas, we believe job growth requires a complete rethinking of how we approach the economy. Technology, science, math and computerization are the future. This is where the high paying jobs are now and will be, and educating our young people on entrepreneurial trends — and teaching them where this new economy is headed — is a critical first step.

We will say it again: Technology, computerization and advanced skills are the future, and there is no avoiding it. If we don’t emphasize this to our young people day in and day out, our rural economies will only fall further and further behind.

The Daily Independent of Ashland