Champions for Rural Washington bring creative solutions to 2018 Rural Jobs Summit
LONGVIEW – Community leaders shared creative solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing rural Washington Thursday at AWB’s 2018 Rural Jobs Summit, from new ways to capitalize businesses, different ways to deliver healthcare and treating childcare like an investment in infrastructure.
Nearly 150 community leaders, policymakers, industry experts and Washington employers gathered at Lower Columbia College for a day of panel discussions and conversation about how to expand economic opportunity throughout all of Washington’s rural communities.
While the Puget Sound has seen impressive job growth since the Great Recession, too many of Washington’s rural areas are falling behind, AWB President Kris Johnson noted in his opening remarks.
And, 30 of the state’s 39 counties are defined as rural, and all counties include rural areas, even King County, underscoring that the rural jobs conversation is really about how to help all of Washington succeed.
Throughout the day, AWB’s panels – Natural Resources, Broadband, Access to Capital, Early Learning and remarks on public health – came together to highlight the building blocks of what it takes to build a successful economy.
Natural ResourcesThe Natural Resources panel highlighted how traditional industries, often established in the pioneer days, still create good family-wage jobs in small towns.
Lisa Perry of Sierra Pacific Industries said one of the biggest challenges her industry faces is the misplaced notion that it’s dead.
Far from it. Sierra Pacific has invested $1 billion in Washington since 2000. Most recently the company invested $100 million in a mill in Shelton, the largest volume stud mill in North America. The Shelton mill is six months behind on production because of staffing shortages, she said.
“As a community we’ve spent two generations telling kids that there’s two paths in school: There’s four-year college, and there’s failure,” she said. But that’s not really the case. The industry offers jobs that pay $80,000-$100,000 a year, in rural communities that often have lower housing costs.
George Harris of the Northwest Marine Trade Association said recreational boating is a $4 billion industry that provides 28,000 jobs all across the state. Alex McGregor of the McGregor Company said agriculture employs about 160,000 people across Washington. Farmers grow more than 300 crops, and 97 percent of the land is farmed or ranched by individual families that have reduced soil erosion and increased yields significantly over time.
He also noted that many crops are exported, including about 90 percent of the wheat on his farm. Trade wars put American farmers at a disadvantage around the world, he said.
“It’s taken generations to build relationships with millers and bakers around the world,” he said.
Rural HealthDr. Jeff Haney of Washington State University highlighted the health disparities faced by rural communities in the keynote lunch address.
Premature death rates are higher in rural communities, he said. He showed the crowd a series of maps: Childhood poverty. Overall poverty. No health insurance. Shortages of primary care providers. Medically underserved areas. In each map, rural communities fared worse than urban ones.
It’s pretty clear, Haney said, that regardless of racial status and other issues, poverty and education are direct markers of health outcomes.
And there’s still a primary care provider shortage, although not as bad as other states.
“To get us to a normal place we would need an additional 692 primary care docs in this state,” he said.
Haney said we need to rethink how we approach healthcare. Telemedicine is one idea, although the reimbursement model is not that great, he said. Also, some companies like Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories have hired their own company medical staff, including a doctor. Some have suggested a subscription model where a doctor would serve a number of patients, and perhaps there’s a way to use Washington’s agriculture extension offices as an entry point to provide service in rural communities. The solution is going to come from the people at the summit, he said.
BroadbandAny conversation about rural jobs must include rural broadband. The big picture is there’s been much progress but too many rural communities are still disconnected, which means it’s harder to attract businesses, or telecommute in rural areas, for example.
AWB’s Mike Ennis said in the previous five years telecom companies have invested $9.5 billion in infrastructure in Washington. And it’s not all fiber and hardware – these firms also employ 22,000 Washingtonians with good jobs.
“Our citizens have never been as connected to the world as we are today, thanks to private enterprise,” he said.
About 94 percent of Washington is connected to the Internet, said John Flanagan, an economic development adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee.
“Even without a really comprehensive state or federal program for broadband in this state, the private companies have done a really good job,” he said.
Still, the governor wants to do something on broadband, Flanagan said.
“Access to the internet touches on healthcare, it touches on education, it touches on even management of some of our natural resources,” he said. “…It’s kind of a silver bullet, in a lot of ways, to help a lot of people.”
The administration will hopefully bring legislation in January, he said. The bill would set up a statewide broadband office and create a fund, among other measures.
Access to Capital
It’s no secret that much of the capital in this country flows to the coast and urban areas. AWB’s Access to Capital panelists, however, are here to help rural communities thrive.
Regional Administrator Jeremy Fields of the U.S. Small Business Administration shared stories of many successful rural entrepreneurs thanks to the SBA. The agency offers loan guarantees and technical advice to rural employers, and loans start at $500.
“There are people that will listen to you and help you improve your business. And it won’t cost you anything,” he said.
Mark Scheffel of Advantage Capital Partners praised AWB and the rural jobs participants for identifying the problem and creating reports and research to clarify the challenges, as well as gathering to discuss solutions. His firm specializes in capitalizing rural businesses, and he encouraged entrepreneurs and employers to seek a team approach when financing a deal, so that banks and investors can spread the risk.
Andy Mesojednik of Bank of the Pacific said his community bank was started in 1971 by local business people that recognized a need. He said his firm loans to logging, fishing, farming, aquaculture and hospitality firms.
“A lot of these provide many family wage jobs for the folks in our communities,” he said.
And capital and cashflow are the lifeblood for these businesses.
“Without it, they’re not going to be able to survive,” he said.
ChildcareThe day’s final panel focused on a critical issue has been historically overlooked as an economic issue. Two childcare providers and a moderator highlighted a childcare system that often does not work for Washington workers.
It’s hard for parents to focus at work if they are worried about where their kids are, moderator Ashley Helenberg of the Port of Longview said.
“There is nothing more difficult as an employee and a mother than finding a place for your children to go,“ she said.
Or, take the cost of an infant care at a private childcare center: $1,500 a month. Nicole Sohn of Journey Discovery Center in Spokane said one of her center’s families recently found out they were having twins. The family already had a toddler in the daycare. So, one of the spouses quit working their day job instead.
“There’s our workforce issue right there,” Helenberg said. “Sometimes childcare is so prohibitive that it makes sense for one of the parents to stay home.”
Sohn said she was excited to be at the summit, because not often is early learning part of the conversation.
“We all need to care about early learning, because we know it’s the future of our communities. …The dollars we save later on in life, for all the dollars we invest in birth through five, is huge.”
Both Sohn and Mindy Leasure of the Lower Columbia College Head Start said public investment is necessary to address the childcare and early learning challenge in Washington.
“Public investment really is the long-term solution,” Leasure said.
Their ideas included wage subsidies, better reimbursement rates for publicly-funded programs, and overall, treating early learning as an investment in the current and future workforce – and an investment in infrastructure.
AWB’s Rural Jobs Summit continues Friday with more exploration of the challenges – and solutions – that can help all of Washington thrive.