Op-Ed April 5, 2017

Disconnected youth in Appalachia: More than just the rural-urban divide

by Kenny Sholes

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election exposed the general disconnect between the way rural and urban Americans view the trajectory of the country. Over the last few decades, rural Appalachian communities have witnessed economic downturns and their associated impacts in an overwhelmingly personal manner. Related to these outcomes, another type of disconnect among youth is plaguing our rural regions. As a recent Social Science Research Council Measure of America study finds, rural youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected” – neither employed nor enrolled in school – at rates higher than 20%. In Appalachia, these disconnection rates are even higher, with counties like McDowell (West Virginia), Martin (Kentucky) and Forest (Pennsylvania) registering 45-55% youth disconnection rates.

These findings are concerning given higher rates of depression, drug abuse and suicide among “disconnected” youth, but also because our disconnected youth will soon become disconnected adults. If not adequately addressed, rural communities in Appalachia will continue to lag behind the rest of the country in significant measures, to include health, education and economic independence. There’s been a lot of discussion on the problems plaguing Appalachia, but far less discussion on addressing these problems through aggressive public policies at the local, state and federal levels. Through a comprehensive effort that better links education, infrastructure investment and broadband connectivity to our Appalachian regions, we can create the environments necessary to reconnect our youth.

It’s worth noting that none of the possible solutions or policies proposed here are revolutionary. In fact, many are described as part of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan. What complicates these solutions is the large amounts of financing needed to execute these programs and the need to address the diverse challenges in Appalachia in an interconnected and simultaneous manner. The Appalachian transition and the resulting reconnection of Appalachian youth, will be a long and difficult process. However, with unprecedented national attention on the region following the 2016 election, the time is ripe for local, state and federal policymakers to pursue bold actions.

Education is the centerpiece of the reconnection strategy. Our rural Appalachian communities have experienced significant school consolidations, teacher shortages and lowered graduation rates over the last few decades. To combat these challenges, Appalachian schools desperately need an adequate supply of high quality teachers to instruct on topics for which they have been trained. The Robert Noyce Teaching Scholarship, which focuses on addressing the shortage of math and science teachers across the country, is an example of the type of programs local and state policymakers should be promoting.

In addition to a focus on teachers, rural boards of education need to be better tied into local chambers of commerce and economic development offices to understand realistic local employment opportunities for high schoolers choosing to remain in the community post-graduation. It’s true that 4-year colleges are not the only route towards lifelong economic success, but as the disconnection rates show, remaining in local Appalachian communities without specific and relevant workforce skillsets can significantly limit employment opportunities. As such, career and technical education (CTE) programs should be available in all rural schools, with CTE offerings and certifications tailored to these local employment opportunities.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, H.R. 5587, overwhelmingly passed through the House in 2016, is a positive sign that CTE improvement is supported at the federal level. Translating this bill into success at the local level will be of critical importance.

While strengthening local opportunities through CTE is important, we must also support those choosing to leave Appalachia for college or other employment opportunities. While much concern has been made over brain drain (for good reason), Appalachian leaders should recognize that some outmigration of post-high school youth is ok if accompanied by an in-migration of experienced professionals in their early 30s-40s. The reality is that most Appalachian communities – and rural communities in general – can’t provide the type of amenities and experiences that many people in their early 20s prioritize. But, as people mature and begin to build families, priorities change. Creating the environment necessary – good schools, adequate housing, meaningful work, etc. – for these experienced professionals to return home is critical.

As opportunities for experienced professionals to return grow, a full range marketing effort that reaches out to those who have left Appalachia will be needed. In addition to outreach, local and state policymakers can further incentivize returns through financial and tax incentives, such as college loan repayment guarantees and lowered property tax agreements. Another strategy worth pursuing involves the creation of local task forces to maintain contact with youth who have left the region to encourage their assistance on local issues from afar. This assistance could involve a range of activities from publicizing opportunities and encouraging entrepreneurial investments in their rural regions with highly skilled peers to solving technical issues via the Internet. The recently proposed and bipartisan supported Investment in Opportunity Act seeks to encourage private investment in distressed communities across the country. Should the bill – or others like it – pass, Appalachian leaders need to ensure they are positioned to funnel as much of this investment to their communities as possible.

Complicating matters, Appalachian communities face unique transportation challenges given the region’s rugged mountainous geography. At the federal level, local and state policymakers need to continue aggressive lobbying efforts to receive financial support for infrastructure improvement. However, as ongoing construction of the King Coal Highway in southern West Virginia highlights, these efforts will take a great deal of time. At the local level, rural policymakers need to create and promote usable public transportation networks. Innovative urban transportation solutions should be reviewed for key lessons, but the dynamics associated with Appalachian communities will likely require solutions that look far different than those found in the city. Car sharing programs, personal rapid transit (PRT) systems (for example, see West Virginia University’s PRT), autonomous vehicles and community networked bus lines all represent areas for investment with potentially innovative transportation solutions.

Finally, interconnectivity through universal broadband Internet cannot be understated. The latest Federal Communications Commission broadband progress report shows that an alarming 39% of rural Americans lack access to broadband. The need for universal broadband in Appalachian communities is well documented, and there have been successes made in certain Appalachian regions. In parallel with efforts to continue promoting broadband for all Appalachians, local and state policymakers need to start laying the groundwork for how to benefit from broadband once it’s available. For example, telecommuting – a relatively common practice in urban districts but rarer in rural communities – instantly becomes a viable employment option with broadband access. Coworking spaces– also a rarity in rural regions – might prove useful in promoting and providing space for this type of work while also addressing the many vacant buildings scattered across rural communities.

As Appalachian regions begin to develop local workforces, infrastructure and broadband, large companies should begin recognizing the benefits of relocating some aspects of their operations to these locations, which already offer cheaper real estate and costs of living. One component of operations that organizations might find appealing to conduct in rural Appalachia is backoffice operations, such as accounting, human resources and IT. These operations can be completed from almost anywhere given adequate physical and interconnective infrastructure. As such, there’s no reason Appalachian communities can’t fulfill many of these companies’ backoffice needs, supplying many jobs at diverse skill levels.

The high rates of youth disconnection in Appalachia should serve as a warning that, if not addressed, our Appalachian populations will continue to fall behind other regions on issues related to health, education and economic development. The ultimate goal of these educational, infrastructural and broadband initiatives is to create an Appalachia where diversely skilled workforces and adequate connective infrastructure are able to lure productive businesses, entrepreneurs and investors. The process will be long and difficult, require synchronized support at local to federal levels and necessitate innovative financing mechanisms, but as productive pockets of Appalachia begin to emerge, so too will the opportunities necessary to reconnect our Appalachian youth.

Kenny Sholes is a recent graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While he doesn’t reside within Appalachia, he is committed to finding policy solutions to the challenges in the region.