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Roundtable examines stretching boundaries for rural workforce.

Rural community leaders and state agency officials in Oregon came together for the first Rural Workforce Roundtable, Stretching the Boundaries, led by the National League of Cities and the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). The roundtable, held April 2-3 in Portland, Ore., is part of NLC's Rural Workforce Project, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute, to explore how to best develop the workforce in nonmetropolitan areas throughout America.

The roundtable is part of the targeted research the project is conducting in a number of communities in each of four states to explore rural workforce issues and identify "best practices." Findings from the project will be published in the fall of 1992.

Most of the roundtable attendees had participated in research interviews conducted by Phyllis Furdell of NLC and Joan Wills of IEL. Present were municipal officials from rural Oregon, local administrators of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) and the Job Opportunity and Basic Skills (JOBS) programs, school superintendents and community college presidents. Also attending were state officials from the Oregon Board of Education, the Office of Educational Policy and Planning, the State Department of Education, the Oregon Workforce Development Council, the Joint Legislative Committee on Trade and Economic Development, the Department of Human Resources, and Adult and Family Services.

The League of Oregon Cities identified additional municipal officials who were grappling with workforce issues in rural communities and who were interested in being part of the roundtable. Philip Fell represented LOC at the event.

Representatives from state agencies and ten rural communities were led by Betty Hale of IEL through a series of processes that began with envisioning how empowered rural communities would look ten years down the road. After identifying barriers to their visions of empowered communities and looking at the possibilities of new paradigms for rural areas, the groups were ready to frame strategies for overcoming those barriers.

Rural leaders sent clear messages to state representatives:

[Section] Although state agencies need to set workforce and educational goals, strategies to achieve them should be developed at the local level.

[Section] Information generated by the state needs to be shared with all involved agencies at the local level and all players should agree on a common language and set of facts.

[Section] Although they generally did not trust state government and institutions, those in rural areas knew, trusted and worked well with other human resource agency professionals in their communities.

[Section] All too often, agency goals were in conflict with community goals.

Rural leaders also identified an impressive list of state mandates, programs, and initiatives in Oregon that have empowered and assisted rural areas. Among them were Oregon's educational benchmarks, coordination mandates for the JOBS program, state lottery funds for economic development projects, teen parent programs, regional economic development strategies, and the Rapid Response Team which address mass layoffs and plant closures.

Noted by both state and local roundtable participants as a new and valuable experience was the unique mix of both state and local education and human resource people and municipal officials. The most valuable aspects of the roundtable experience cited by the group were the exchange of ideas with others from rural areas and the opportunity to brainstorm, network and share experiences with those who see rural issues from different perspectives.

The Rural Workforce Project is an outcome of NLC's awareness that without adequate preparation of citizens to participate in the workforce, economic development efforts are stifled. Elected officials continue to rank the quality of education and training systems high on their list of concerns.

Although not directly responsible for education and social service programs, municipal officials in rural areas are becoming more strongly aware of the need to take a leadership role in promoting community-wide solutions to the problems of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and economic decline. The goal of the Rural Workforce Project is to provide rural leaders with the information they need about innovative and effective ways that different agencies, institutions and levels of government can work together more productively in nonmetropolitan areas.
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Author:Furdell, Phyllis
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Apr 13, 1992
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