For years, the answer to the question of rural economic development was a single strategy: Recruit a company to the community. The strategy may have offered a seed of development, but long term growth could be stunted if an industry suffered a downtown, or a talent pool was difficult to find.
Northwest Kansas - like so many other regions that host small communities on the open plains in the Midwest – continues to ask the question of how to nurture and strengthen its economy. It’s just that the answer is changing.
In 2019, Northwest Kansas Economic Innovation Center Inc. joined with Rural & Remote to respond to the challenge of economic development and job opportunities in the region. Rural & Remote helps connect professionals to their desired jobs while allowing them to live in the rural areas they want to call home.
“When we started building Rural & Remote, we wanted to help professionals secure work in a variety of remote roles because that’s what helps a community sustain the highs and lows of industries like oil and gas, manufacturing, agriculture,” said Scott Sproul, CEO of NWKEICI. “Rural & Remote gives them an opportunity to find a job that may not be based in Northwest Kansas, or may not be based in their community. A lot of times, there’s a job for you based in Northwest Kansas, but you have a family farm and you can’t relocate 70 miles away.”
Opening the door to remote work also creates the possibility for two incomes for families. Many times in smaller communities, one member of the household can secure a professional job, but the spouse may not be as fortunate.
“With Rural & Remote, we want to make sure that there is an opportunity for that spouse or other member in the family who didn’t have a job,” Sproul notes. “Sometimes you move to a place and when you just have one income, it stresses the livable wage of that family. The opportunity to get a remote job for that other person in the household makes a tremendous difference.”
In some cases, families find remote work enables them to bring in income in addition to secure employment through contract or part-time work.
“Remote contracts can be a great way for some to make extra cash,” he said.
And just as there are varied answers to the question of economic development, there are also different strategies. There’s the “short game” as Sproul calls it, which is all about the initial relationships, networking, and opportunities that are being forged through Rural & Remote.
But the “long game” widens the vision for the future.
“That’s where we’re really going to see success,” stresses Sproul. “When we start having businesses who believe in the work ethic and productivity of the talent pool here in Northwest Kansas. “We will see mass success when business development partnerships are formed because companies want to hire people from Northwest Kansas.”
And so far, so good. Companies are all too aware of what many in the region already know. Northwest Kansas professional are known for their dedication to the job and the work at hand.
“The two best amenities of Northwest Kansas is our great education systems – kids here can be involved in anything they want to be and that develops a well-rounded knowledge, and there’s the determination and ‘get it done’ attitude of our people,” he said. “That’s why everyone wants our talent. They have the work ethic and the will to get it done.”
NWKEICI is a little more than a year into the relationship with Rural & Remote, and Sproul said he is pleased with the strides that have been made. While a pandemic was never foreseen, the situation surrounding COVID has only drawn more and more professionals back to home or to rural areas.
“The strengths of being able to live and work in Northwest Kansas hasn’t been more evident than right now during COVID,” he said. “We have seen people who have either secured their existing job and converted it into a remote position because companies are seeing the value in that, or they are finding a remote position to be able to move closer to the family farm or help with the family business. “We hope to see the numbers someday on what is transpiring now. In some communities, it truly is a bit mind boggling of how many have moved back to the area and have been able to bring their jobs with them.”
And that’s the true beauty of Rural &Remote. The possibility for a stable, good paying professional job exists – it’s just sometimes a matter of syncing talent, with opportunity, and location.
“There’s lots of good jobs that pay well in Northwest Kansas,” he said. “It’s just being able to find those jobs in the community at the time you need it.”
It’s that kind of foresight Sproul remains grateful for, and truly what he is most excited about looking ahead.
“Basically at the end of the day with these remote opportunities, what you’re doing is changing people’s lives,” he said. “You can’t help but get emotional about that or overstate that. You are bringing people an opportunity for training, and helping get connections for the people who are trained. We have several instances where we have people who are making $8/hour and then get trained and find a career and a salary with benefits. That new occupation will change the story of their family. That’s truly the part that matters most about what we do at EICI.”