The digital economy, centered in a few high-tech cities, has left rural America behind, but it does not need to be this way. To get these jobs, rural Americans don’t need to move to San Francisco, and they certainly don’t need to retrain as programmers.
By gaining access to selling and freelance platforms, rural New Yorkers can sell products and find jobs anywhere in world, using the skills and talents they already have. Receptionists can welcome office visitors in San Francisco from their homes in the Finger Lakes. Woodworkers can craft custom pieces to sell downstate. Virtual assistants can handle email and arrange calendars for anyone in the world.
While detractors often see these platforms as a way to find the cheapest workers, wherever they might be, rural Americans have often overlooked advantages: they are fluent in English and, more importantly, understand American culture. While programming can be done by anyone, rural Americans possess the social know-how to communicate with other Americans—something that cannot be shipped overseas. Rural Americans can even (and already do) sell these skills abroad, to companies looking to serve the largest consumer market in the world.
The Digital Countryside Initiative
The ILR School, in collaboration with corporate and labor partners, would like to connect rural New York to the digital economy, helping people succeed in this fast-growing but unfamiliar world. We think New York could be a model for helping rural Americans transition to this new economy.
While anyone can join these platforms already, for those unaccustomed to online work, even imagining what is possible can be the greatest barrier to participation. Starting with partnerships with local libraries, where many unemployed and underemployed people look to find work, the Digital Countryside Initiative will show people what is possible using the talents they already have, and then continue supporting them as they find new ways to earn money. Once established, the project could rapidly scale around the state through existing institutional infrastructure.
Louis Hyman, Associate Professor, Director of the Institute for Workplace Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.