I’ve always found it interesting that, even as the newest technological innovations give humans the unrestricted ability to connect with one another no matter their physical location, the companies at the heart of creating these platforms and services all concentrate their workforces in the same centralized locations.
Facebook. Google. Twitter. Snap. Apple. All are examples of companies that have built products that enable unlimited connectivity. Yet, when it comes to where these companies locate their offices, it all points back to one specific geographic area, Silicon Valley. (Snap, to be sure, is based in Los Angeles.)
Building a large corporate campus in the heartland isn’t necessarily what I’d propose — although some companies may consider doing so. But what they should do is stop being so narrow in where they decide to build additional offices.
There are a host of reasons why cities have experienced this type of corporate revitalization. It wasn’t all that long ago that cities were thought of as centers of crime and poverty. Companies built sprawling suburban campuses and talent moved along with them in droves. Now, the reverse is in effect, and I think it’s up to companies to do something about it.
Rural areas were hit especially hard by the country’s recent transforming manufacturing sector. Automation and globalization have decimated small-town employment. Most small towns only have one or two employers; once they leave, so do the jobs. Today, most new job creation is in urban areas, according to Census data, and rural America still hasn’t recovered the jobs lost during the most recent recession.
Moreover, the knowledge economy is so hard to find in rural America that kids who grew up in those parts of the country view college as their ticket out of town. As The Wall Street Journal wrote about this week, many rural communities are suffering because young people don’t return after college — they head straight for the cities and never come back.
Given advancements in communication and collaboration technology, companies should be more comfortable allowing their workforces to disperse across the country, even to non-urban areas. Being more lenient in where people work might lead more employees to settle down in rural parts of the country. This may go a long way toward bringing more economic activity and industry to those areas, in turn providing more opportunity for people there.
Furthermore, not only should companies encourage their employees to disperse, but they should funnel more investment into local training programs so they can eventually recruit organically in those areas. For decades we’ve relied on colleges and universities to educate and train the future workforce. But for those without access to this type of formal education, companies should step in and contribute.
Imagine Facebook investing in a computer science training center in Jefferson, Iowa, population 4,276, where employees volunteered to train local high school students to code and build tech products. You can say the same thing about General Electric, AT&T or any other corporation.
These firms need to make an intentional effort to spread out and invest in rural America. There’s no doubt that doing so will be challenging. Many rural parts of the country don’t currently have proficient access to broadband internet, making it difficult for any company to disperse to those areas and make an impact. These parts are also not logistically located near major airports or other technology hubs, furthering the challenge at hand.
Still, if today’s titans of industry are intent on building technology capable of typing with our brains or colonizing Mars, then they certainly can tackle the task of helping spread their employment impact beyond a few notable area codes.
Rural America is the place they should start.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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