USDA unit’s new guide aims to help stimulate employment in rural areas

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A new guide put together by a unit of the Agriculture Department aims to help spur employment in rural areas. Its resource guide includes sources of funding available from the USDA itself. Farah Ahmad, chief of staff for Rural Development at USDA, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more about the program.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Ahmad, good to have you on.

Farah Ahmad: Thank you so much for having me Tom.

Tom Temin: And let’s begin with the part of USDA that you work in in the first place that it is concerned with rural development, but not necessarily agricultural development. And I guess it might be surprising to a degree that USDA is involved in non farm work in rural areas, tell us more about your mission.

Farah Ahmad: I am so excited to be here today and to talk to you a little bit about our work at the Department of Agriculture. So the area of USDA that I work in as chief of staff is called Rural Development. And really our mission is to support rural communities, and help them thrive economically, and to really help build prosperity across this country. And one thing that we do that I think many folks may not know is that rural communities actually are pretty diverse. They’re not monolithic. In fact, if you look at the racial and ethnic makeup, or just even the industry diversity across rural communities, they’re very different, whether it’s rural communities in the southwest, or across the border in Appalachia, or even up north in the Pacific Northwest. I think there is a perception that most of these rural communities are agricultural based or farm based, when in fact, that’s not the case. Only one in five jobs in rural communities is actually agricultural based. And most of these rural communities aren’t actually dependent on any one industry. And so while communities are actually diversified in what they do in their economy, and so our job in Rural Development is actually to support and help grow those local economies, and help support those diverse economies.

Tom Temin: Because when you go through rural areas, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the back roads of Appalachia, you do see dead factories, sites of former industrial activity. And you do see a lot of poverty, and you drive through the small towns and they’re all boarded up for the most part, a few exceptions, but generally, there’s not much going on there. So, it seems like over the decades the agriculture has withdrawn. There were other industries, and now those industries have gone. So, what’s the essential challenge here of getting rural employment up a notch so that there’s less poverty in those areas?

Farah Ahmad: Yeah. And farming and agriculture, of course, still is a core part of many rural communities. It’s just not all of rural communities. But this is a good opportunity to kind of recognize all that rural communities do to contribute to the economy. So, they are still the backbone of agricultural and the food supply chain, but also supplying natural resources, whether that’s through forestry or even through energy. So they play a critical role in supporting the U.S. economy and urban places as well. But you’re right, there’s a lot of persistent poverty in rural places. And one of our main goals is to do what we can to bring financial assistance to those places, particularly when it comes to workforce needs. So, what we like to do is work with communities, have them tell us what their needs are, their vision, understand the assets that their communities and regions bring, and use our financial assistance to harness those local assets to really drive their economy. And so one thing that we hope to do with the Rural Workforce Development guide, is to provide a resource for communities to understand what the federal government has to offer as they’re thinking through their workforce development needs, and as their business community looks towards trying to get the kinds of workers they need to sustain their businesses.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Farah Ahmad, she is chief of staff for Rural Development at the Agriculture Department. So, what are the essential things local areas can do? I mean, who is this guide aimed for? Is it aimed at local officials, elected officials, town managers, that type of person? And, what are some of the things they can do to get their economies a little bit, to light the burner a little bit underneath?

Farah Ahmad: Yeah, it’s a great question. So the USDA Resource Guide for Rural Workforce Development that we launched a little earlier this year is really aimed towards community leaders. So it’s kind of all of those folks that you’ve listed, and then some, because we know that workforce development really takes partnership at the local and regional level to get off the ground. And so this guide is really focused on showcasing resources across the federal government. They’re not just USDA. And to help them more easily think about how they can create jobs, train talent, expand educational opportunities, or even provide much-needed technical assistance. And it outlines programs and services that are available across the federal family that support workforce development, specifically in rural places.

Tom Temin: And we should point out that the guide is not some 500 page tome, but it’s a 20 page, highly graphic guide. And I’m looking at one page here, I guess it’s page 12, World Workforce Resource Guide Matrix, and it talks about customers, workforce development planning, infrastructure and equipment, industry and employer engagement, which gets to my question, in developing the workforce, you also have to have a concomitant development of the economy, so that there are places for developed workers to go without moving to, Pittsburgh, or moving to Philadelphia, or moving to the big city.

Farah Ahmad: Right. One thing that’s really great about this guide, and I’m glad you mentioned that it’s only 20 pages, is that it really outlines clearly sort of four key elements of workforce development that we can help finance as the federal government. So there’s Workforce Development Planning, there’s Infrastructure and Equipment Financing, there’s Industry and Employer Engagement and Entrepreneurship and Local Business Development, and then finally, Education, Training and Apprenticeship. So these are really core elements as a community or region is thinking about their workforce and what they need to do to support it. These are pieces of the puzzle. And so what we aim to do in this guide is lay out those four pieces of the puzzle and say, hey, here’s where USDA can support you, here is where Department of Labor can actually provide much needed grant assistance or the Small Business Administration. And we want to make it as user friendly as possible. The government is already a huge, complicated machine. And, it shouldn’t be the job of communities to try to understand all of that complexity, it’s really our job as federal employees to provide resources and community centered, user centered way. And so at the back of this guide, there really is a matrix that says depending on who you are, what can work for you. So you can look at the matrix and say, hh, if I’m a customer, here’s programs that work for me. I’m focused on Workforce Development Planning, here are some resources, all across those pieces of the puzzle that I talk about. And to be honest with you, Tom, this is actually a good resource for our colleagues in the federal government, because we don’t always understand what our colleagues do in other parts of our own departments, let alone across other federal agencies. But it’s really critical that we work together to support communities, because there may be something that USDA Rural Development can find. I know we can fund a equipment for universities for distance learning. Maybe we can do one part of that, but maybe we need Department of Labor to come in and fund a different part of their workforce needs. And so this is really aiming to bring all these resources to bear in one place. And as we do our work as federal employees, I’m going to have this guide handy when I work with communities to make sure that when I am talking to local leaders in a rural place, that I share with them that they can reach out to the VA or Department of Labor or other places as needed.

Tom Temin: And the guide does have some examples, case histories of rural areas that did score big in development. Any one that stands out in your mind that’s a great example?

Farah Ahmad: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. Because the other thing this does is try to bring to light what it could look like if you bring these federal resources to bear. And I think that’s the best way of trying to make sense of all this is really looking at a success story or a case study. So, there’s actually two that come to mind that I really appreciated in this guide. So the first is about a high school, Plymouth High School. And it has one of those programs that people may be familiar with where when you attend to high school, you can also dual enroll in a college in your state to get college credit. It’s really becoming a common practice for a lot of schools around the country. But what Plymouth High School which was located in a small rural town, I think about 2,000 people…

Tom Temin: Plymouth, Ohio, by the way…

Farah Ahmad: …they didn’t have a local college where young people in the high school could take those classes and get that credit. And so they partnered with USDA and our distance learning and telemedicine program to actually build out their online college curriculum with those colleges so those students could get credit for that. And a lot of those courses were actually focused on a STEM curriculum because their regional workforce needs were really related to STEM. And so they really kind of connected the dots around, what is the region need for workforce, and how can we start to grow a pipeline of kids who will become adults and entering the workforce? And so USDA was really happy to support that effort with our distance learning and telemedicine program.

Tom Temin: And to your point that this can be an intergovernmental function, I’m looking at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation investments target cycle of poverty, and they built a business incubator in that area. And it involved the USDA Rural Development, your group, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, FDIC, and even the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. So four or five different departments involved in this one case, and I think that’s what you’re saying that there’s a lot of things that can be brought to bear in concert across the government.

Farah Ahmad: Absolutely, Tom. And that’s a great example. And that’s exactly why we wanted to highlight the Four Bands Community Fund who really helped develop this incubator in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation. Because of that, it really is a great example of how the federal family can work together to support a community’s vision. In this case, it was that incubator that was really supporting entrepreneurship and helping entrepreneurs figure out how to finance their businesses and really make their ideas come to life.

Tom Temin: Farah Ahmad is chief of staff for Rural Development at the Agriculture Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Farah Ahmad: Thanks so much, Tom. Glad to be here.

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