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Shifting Winds: Examining Employment Trends in Rural Northwest Regions

Rural Workforce Opportunities Post Pandemic

"Our research into rural workforce conditions paints a clear picture about the rural regions of the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West: the pandemic unlocked access to new tech sector jobs. However, many of these opportunities will require our collective investment in localized skills, training, and education to ensure individuals will thrive in this rapidly changing work environment."

— Tonya Drake, Ph.D.
Chancellor and Regional Vice President
Western Governors University

About the Research

As the U.S. workforce shifted to remote work during the pandemic, many labor market observers wondered if this would expand labor market opportunities for rural talent. WGU LABS, in partnership with Western Governors University’s Northwest Regional team, analyzed Lightcast’s job listing data to understand how the employment landscape in the rural Pacific Northwest and Mountain West states shifted since 2020 and what those shifts mean for rural talent.

The results show that healthcare jobs continue to dominate employment opportunities, but positions in the STEM sector are rising. Job seekers in these regions will find that technology, finance, and insurance roles offer good growth and pay opportunities. However, rural talent needs to explore educational opportunities to meet the increasing demands for bachelor’s degrees and technology skills. The findings highlight the need for local workforce agencies and states to work with local community leaders to expand access to career exploration, skills certification, degree programs, and learning experiences.


WGU Northwest Region

For the purposes of this research, the Northwest region is composed of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.


WGU Labs is the nonprofit EdTech consulting, incubation, research, and design arm of Western Governors University, where our mission is to identify and support scalable solutions that address the biggest challenges in education today.


  • Lightcast data analysis
  • Local industry interviews
  • Upcoming rural Chamber survey

Key Findings

Firstly, healthcare jobs still dominate in the region. In the rural Pacific Northwest and Mountain West, healthcare jobs accounted for between 15% and 51% of all rural job postings in these states over the last five years. The sector added over 20,000 job postings in rural counties in the five profiled states.

Secondly, STEM sector jobs are on the rise. Rural posting increases outpaced urban areas, with science, technology, engineering, and math postings increasing by 183% in rural areas versus a 61% increase in urban areas across the five states. Between 83% and 90% of these positions are listed as in-person, requiring locally based talent. Job postings for positions in STEM fields joined healthcare and construction as the top three growth sectors in these regions.

Thirdly, job postings requiring bachelor’s degrees are rising. Post-COVID, 33% of jobs required a bachelor's degree versus 20% that required a high school diploma or GED. Only between 21% and 33% of rural residents in these states hold a bachelor's degree.  

"During the pandemic, many people in Microsoft and other companies have moved to rural areas, which shows that with the right experience, training, and skills, remote working has unlocked an equitable career path for people in various locations, so while I am not seeing specific recruiting initiatives, we are not turning down great talent wherever they live."

— Dr. Andre Alfred
Vice President
Azure Security at Microsoft


"Several trends are impacting rural healthcare. Frontline caregivers are being asked to do more and more, and the demand for non-physician providers is greater than ever. That is driving an increased emphasis on post-secondary training, including bachelor’s degrees and other credentials. Also, many organizations are slowly raising wages for frontline caregivers to better match their academic and clinical preparation." 

— Kevin McEwan
Chief Nursing Officer
Madison Memorial Hospital

Learn Where You Live Scholarship

The rural employment market has changed over the past five years, and WGU wants to support the local talent ensuring they have the skills that align with new and emerging opportunities in rural America by offering the Learn Where You Live Scholarship just for those who live in rural areas.