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Examining Employment Trends in Rural Northwest Regions

Mar 14, 2023

Health Care Job Postings Still Dominate the Rural Pacific Northwest and Mountain West; The Number of Rural STEM Positions is Significantly Rising

Study examined the rural regions’ workforce trends as they experienced and emerged from the pandemic

Western Governors University’s Northwest Regional team, in partnership with WGU Labs, recently released research generated from Lightcast’s job-listing data from 2017 to 2022 to understand how the employment landscape in rural regions of the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West states — Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Colorado — shifted as they experienced and then emerged from the worst of the pandemic.

In WGU’s report, Shifting Winds: Examining Employment Trends in Rural Northwest Regions,

the research shows that while demand for talent shifted throughout the pandemic, rural health care job listings continue to dominate in these regions, and rural STEM-sector job postings are rising significantly — with a 183% increase in rural areas. Demand for bachelor’s degrees has also increased as a requirement compared to high school diplomas.

Key Research Findings:

Health care jobs still dominate the rural west.

  • Jobs in health care made up a large percentage of postings in rural counties from 2017 to 2022.
  •  In the last five years, the sector added over 20,000 job postings in rural counties in the five states profiled.
  • Between 2017 and 2022, more than half of the total job postings in rural Washington and Oregon, and about a third of postings in Colorado and Idaho, were for health care positions. Only Utah breaks with this trend, with just 15% of total rural postings being in health care fields.

Local STEM-sector jobs are rising.

In the same timeframe, rural companies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah all saw an increase in demand for STEM jobs after the initial COVID shock.

  • Job postings for positions in the professional, scientific and technical service fields joined health care and construction as the top three growth sectors in these states.
  • Rural postings for STEM-sector job postings increased 183% in rural areas versus a 61% increase in urban areas across all five states.
  • Between 80% and 90% of these positions were listed as in-person, requiring locally based talent. That companies seem to want in-person employees may suggest that companies still prefer a workforce that meets together ­that they believe local people can best understand local needs, or both.

Gaps in key position requirements and local skills are emerging.

  • Most of the top 10 specialized skills in rural job postings in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West states were significantly underrepresented in job-seeker profiles.
  • The most sought-after skills were auditing, marketing, computer science, business development, project management, accounting, Agile methodology, finance, workflow management and data analysis.
  • Only marketing was overrepresented in job-seeker profiles, while technology skills were significantly underrepresented. For example, almost 9% of positions in these rural regions sought a candidate with computer science skills but less than 1% of profiles listed this.
  • Post-COVID, a bachelor’s degree became a more prominent requirement compared to high school diplomas, with 33% of jobs requiring a bachelor's degree versus 20% requiring a high school diploma or GED.
  • However, in the five Pacific Northwest and Mountain West states that were explored, only between 21% (Oregon) and 33% (Colorado) of rural residents in these states hold a bachelor's degree.

Jobs seekers must balance high-growth industries against high wages.

  • Jobs classified as professional, scientific, and technical offer this combination of high growth and high salaries.
  • Growth in rural tech positions across all five states ranged from 10% to 45% with salaries between $62,000 and $106,000.
  • Though less consistent across the states, jobs in finance and insurance, as well as information industries (e.g., print and digital media, telecom, information processing, data processing, information services, etc.), also show strong growth and salaries.

“Rural economies, once dominated by agriculture, are now more diverse, with talent working across health care, education services, retail, manufacturing, finance and more,” said Betheny Gross, PhD, director of research for WGU Labs. “Our analysis shows that this evolution over the past 50 years has not only continued but may have taken interesting shifts as a result of the pandemic. As millions of workers shifted from offices to working from home, many observers suggested that this could be an economic boon for rural populations.”

The Lightcast data suggests that rural job applicants in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West have access to new and exciting opportunities if they have the necessary background and skills. However, rising expectations for bachelor’s degrees and for skills associated with the technology sector will mean that rural job seekers need to gain more education and/or skills.

To help and encourage those in rural areas who would like to pursue a bachelor’s degree to meet the existing and emerging job demands in their hometowns, WGU has launched the Learn Where You Live Scholarship for new students or returning graduates who want to further their education at WGU. Scholarship recipients will receive up to $750 per six-month term, renewable up to four terms.

“Everything we do at Western Governors University is aimed at increasing accessibility and opportunity for each student, regardless of their location, background, motivations, or life situation,” said Tonya Drake, PhD, regional vice president of WGU. “Many students want to go back to school and pursue higher education, but the cost can be overwhelming and deter many students from attending college. We're a nonprofit, online university dedicated to making higher education accessible and affordable for as many people as possible.”

WGU’s College of IT offers 10 bachelor’s degrees and multiple industry certifications to support STEM-sector jobs. WGU’s Leavitt School of Health offers five bachelor’s degree options for those seeking to begin or further their careers in the health-care sector.

“The rural community is the backbone of our economy,” added Drake. “It is one that we hope is realizing the benefits of a shifting workforce landscape that our research indicates, and we look forward to helping people gain the degrees needed to obtain in-demand jobs in their hometowns.”

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