“First they come to play, then they come to stay.” That’s one approach to luring workers away from their big-city jobs to smaller towns and more-rural areas, says Julie M. Norman, an employment consultant in Charleston, W.Va.
And the proper sales pitch is the recruiter’s best tool, notes Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
“Rural [employers] need to promote their quality of life, quality of schools, quality of landscape ... their natural amenities,” he says, adding that rural areas need to do a better job of selling themselves to permanent residents, not just to tourists.
Besides partnering with state tourism offices to promote recreational opportunities that are available in their backyards, employers in smaller communities are teaming up with local universities, chambers of commerce, workforce development groups and even with competitors to entice workers.
“Work cooperatively as a region,” Cross advises, and “make sure there’s connectivity”—among employers and between employers and local governmental and civic organizations.
To be as attractive as possible, a company should identify what makes it and its surroundings unique, says Norman, who is president of Julie Norman Associates. No company, in either a rural or urban setting, can be “all things to all people. The shotgun approach is a waste of effort.”
Technology Opens Doors
Rapid advances in technology have opened the door to economic development in less-populated areas, both Norman and Cross note. Employers who felt that they “needed to be in high-traffic areas have learned that, as long as they have computers, they can pretty much be where they want to be,” Norman says.
No one has to sell Henry Torres on the benefits of technology to employers in less-metropolitan areas. Torres is director of business development for Rural Sourcing Inc., an IT company with nearly 50 employees in the cities of Jonesboro (population of 57,000), Magnolia (10,500) and Monticello (9,000), Ark.; Greenville, N.C. (67,000); and Rock Port, Mo. (1,300).
By locating in smaller cities and rural areas, Torres says, his company can “provide services at 30 to 50 percent cost savings while supporting the rural environment. We’re not trying to compete with India. We’re an alternative resource.”
Part of what attracts employees to working at Rural Sourcing is the atmosphere, Torres says. “We go bowling during the day. We go to Chuck E. Cheese’s and get tokens and play games. We have cookouts, golf outings, volunteer outings. We give a variety of benefits, not just money.”
Keeping Them Home
The best way to make sure there are good workers in smaller communities, he suggests, is to keep job candidates from leaving the small towns they call home for the lure of the big city.
Nearby universities are churning out candidates who would love to stay close to their hometown but who think only a big city can offer them a good job, Torres says. When the company started up in 2003, “we asked ourselves, can we build something that would attract sharp new graduates, the people who are going to get offers to go to big cities? What can we put in place?”
Rural Sourcing holds career fairs on campus so students “can see people working in their region, doing high-tech jobs,” he says. The company sponsors internships in which students go through the interview process to make sure they fit the company culture. Students who have internships with Rural Sourcing have passed the first hurdle, he says, and “are probably going to get an offer.”
In addition to good benefits and a lively atmosphere, new graduates want the opportunity to continue developing their skills, Torres found. So the company not only draws from the local universities to find good employees, it partners with them to provide employees with training in business, computer science and management information systems.
Now, “a lot of alumni call, saying they’d like to come back,” Torres says. “So we have talented senior people and new graduates. It’s a good mix.”
Alumni from colleges in southwestern Virginia may be going home, too. A new program, Return to Roots, targets locals who grew up and moved away. “It will reach out and highlight new employers. It’s kind of a regional alumni association to show people there’s something to come home to,” says Stacey Martin, HR director for CGI-AMS Inc.
One of those places to come home to is the new CGI-AMS facility in Lebanon, Va. (population of 3,300). The IT company, which has its U.S. base in the urban northern Virginia area, is looking for engineers, software developers and others who have technical skills—or who are willing to acquire them.
“We’re committed to hiring 300 workers over the next two-and-a-half years. We’ve hired 55 so far,” Martin says. Besides a national recruiting campaign to seek out talent, the company is teaming up with local colleges to “help us retool the workforce” in Russell County and other nearby counties.
“We’ve built a fast-track program with Southwest Virginia Community College for people interested in re-careering themselves. It’s a 34-week immersion program in systems development, then in development languages we’ve identified a need for.”
After candidates have finished the program, Martin says, they interview with the company. “If there’s a good cultural and skill set fit,” the company will try to bring them on board.
More Options for Local Help
In addition to partnering with universities, companies are turning to local chambers of commerce, economic development councils and workforce development groups.
A company planning to enter a smaller town or more-rural market should visit the area’s state capital first, Torres advises. “We’ve learned to contact the state government office on workforce training to see if there is start-up money or move-in money,” he says, noting that there’s always an office or agency that provides training assistance. “It’s not a lot of money, but it reduces our costs,” he says. In all three states in which the company has facilities, “we’ve gotten grants. That’s a big plus for us and our employees.”
In the 12,000-square-mile area north of Sacramento, Calif., many rural companies look for recruiting and other HR help from the Alliance for Workforce Development, a nonprofit organization that receives funds from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Investment Act, legislation from 1998 that was designed to “consolidate, coordinate and improve employment, training, literacy and vocational rehabilitation programs in the United States.”
When there are not a lot of skilled workers already living in a particular area, “we go into the larger metropolitan areas to do recruitment and attract [people] to rural areas. In California there are a lot of people wanting to move out of the ‘rat race.’ I’m one,” says Traci Holt, the alliance’s director of operations and employer services based in Susanville, Calif. (population of 12,000). “Often we can find a person who is looking to get away from the metro area,” she says, adding “I love it up here.”
In a 10-county area, “we’re seen as the place businesses need to go for recruitment. A lot of companies don’t have an HR department. We try to become that,” Holt says. “Through our outreach, the businesses know to come to us. We actually can do the full-blown recruiting for smaller employers: applications, pre-screening. We sit on interviewing panels and assist with the hiring process.”
The alliance has a “strong relationship with economic development,” she says. “When a new business comes to our area, one of their first calls is to us.”
Corporations clustered along the Ohio River in West Virginia use quality of life to attract workers—and to win over their spouses.
“Often you’re selling to two people. You’ve got to bring both parties in,” says R.V. “Buddy” Graham, president of the Polymer Alliance Zone (PAZ), an alliance of producers of polymers (specialty plastics).
“We have a video that talks about what we have in West Virginia: the arts and theater centers around the state, education, the quality of life, the low housing costs. We really promote medical care. We’ve got one of the best medical facilities,” he says.
“We’ve never had a problem attracting people. Companies bring them in from all over the United States. There are people from Europe who relocate here. I open up my home to them,” notes Graham, who suggests that smaller towns are friendlier than big cities. “You don’t have to lock your homes here.”
But corporations such as GE Plastics, DuPont and Bayer rely on more than the friendliness of an area to attract workers. The companies are among the nearly 70 members of PAZ, which was created in 1996 and now has about 70 member employers.
Alliance members are located in Wood, Jackson and Mason counties on the Ohio River south of Parkersburg, W.Va. (population of 32,100). It’s a rural area, Graham says, noting that “There’s only 1.8 million people in the whole state.”
“A group of industries in a region ... works better than any one organization,” Norman says. “You have economies of scale.”
She sees the alliance as a powerful tool for attracting employees who want to advance their careers without the frequent need to relocate.
“There’s an opportunity for growth. There are career ladders within the industry in the region,” she says, and the alliance helps both create and promote those ladders. There are also opportunities for companies to jointly offer pre-employment training to create a more-skilled workforce overall and to offer already skilled candidates the inducement of advanced education.
Norman and Graham are believers in what they call “the power of clusters” and think other industries around the United States should consider their benefits.
“Companies need to break down geographical boundaries. Economies are regional in nature,” Norman says.
Some states “are waking up to the fact that having a cluster [of companies in one industry] is a gold mine waiting to happen,” Graham says. “When companies work together, they get a lot more done.”
Stephenie Overman is managing editor of Staffing Management .