WOODSTOCK — There are two areas of job growth that Jane Oates, president of Working Nation, sees as maximizing the potential of rural America: Remote working and entrepreneurship.
Speaking to a group of about 25 at a Saturday morning meeting of the Shenandoah County Democratic Caucus, Oates said remote working helps smaller communities by bringing good-paying jobs to the area that people can do from home or from a local office.
As an example, she mentioned a CVS pharmacy call center in Phoenix, Arizona, that pays an average $55,000 to highly skilled workers who are trained to answer health-related questions and talk with authority about medications and even legal issues.
With remote work becoming more available, Oates said jobs like this could be housed in a building in downtown Woodstock, providing dozens or even hundreds of jobs for area workers willing and able to gain the skills needed to get a better paying job.
“Who cares how old you are as long as you have the talent?” said Oates. For that matter, she added, “who cares how young you are?” The jobs would be based on training, she said, not a college degree.
“Remote work is something that I think will save rural communities — will help save, if rural communities get involved enough in it,” she said.
Similarly, she touted entrepreneurship as a way of bringing jobs to rural America, but only if state and local governments are willing to put money into educating residents on how to be successful in their own business ventures.
There’s no foundation in K-12 education or beyond that supplies entrepreneurs with business know-how for them to learn the banking and finance needed to run a successful business, Oates pointed out.
“How do we build a system where we’re teaching people how to be entrepreneurs?” she asked meeting attendees.
Oates was previously assistant secretary of Labor for Employment and Training for the Obama administration. She has also served as executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Commission and for almost 10 years was a senior policy adviser to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts.
Her organization, Working Nation, is dedicated to examining the employment problems and training opportunities of a changing American economy.
Speaking at the Shenandoah County Historic Courthouse in Woodstock, she said improving local economies is going to require job training pretty much across the board.
More and more, she explained, the American culture is promoting “gig economics” — jobs that people can do where and when they want, such as being a ride-share driver for Uber or Lyft. It’s another form of entrepreneurship, which, she said, no one has been trained to do and many people fail at doing, because they don’t have business skills.
“To me right now the gig economy is raping and pillaging American workers and we’re standing and smiling about it,” Oates said.
Gig work is nothing new, she said. In decades past, there were people who chose that sort of work, “who wanted to do that themselves to fit into their lifestyle,” she said. She recalled how hairdressers used to work in a gig setting, setting up shop at various venues.
“Now they’re being thrust into it,” she said of modern-day gig workers. “They have no other options.”
In 2018, she said, a scant 20% of the new jobs around the country were full-time with benefits. “The rest of the time, the jobs were part-time or gig work,” she said.
Furthermore, she said, in May of this year, Americans hit an all time low in labor market participation.
Only about 62% of all Americans between the ages of 22 and 55 who are eligible to work right now are working, she said.
“It’s the lowest number since they’ve collected the data in 1956,” Oates said.
These job trends also affect companies, she said, recalling a recent visit to Silicon Valley in California.
“At the end of the day, the businesses are suffering because they can’t find the right talent,” she said.
“States have not invested in this,” she said, because they can’t afford it. “We can’t underfund our state and federal governments, and I would say local governments as well.”
Though funding is important, so are the necessary conversations, she said.
A community’s workforce can make a difference by talking with colleges about what they’re doing well, and how they might offer more programming to better train students in direct skills.
“Nobody’s talking enough to the workforce people,” she said, “and the workforce people could be the real spine of your system, because they have a little bit of money ... to give to young people and the oldest workers you have to kind of bring them together.”
“They can say to the community college … we have 40-year-olds in our county who really need to be retrained, and the programs you’re offering don’t align with the jobs that are open in our region, and they don’t align with the businesses our economic leaders are telling us they’re trying to attract to our region.”
The Democratic Caucus hosts speakers at 10 a.m. on the fourth Saturday of each month at the Historic Courthouse, but they will break for the months of July and August. The next regular meeting is July 10.
A Democratic picnic will be from 5 to 7 p.m. July 27 at Edinburg Park. The event is free, but RSVP to email@example.com so they can prepare enough barbecue.