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Skilled Labor Not Seen in Demand in Rural Areas

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The notion that smarter graduates are needed to meet the demands of rural economic development is not justified by economic data, which instead suggest that the trend toward high-skill jobs is far from reaching rural areas, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.

The authors of the new report, Ruy Teixeira and Lawrence Mishel, who coauthored an earlier study that disputed many of the findings of the influential 1987 "Workforce 2000'' report, conclude that rural areas may find the demand for skilled labor actually shrinking in the years ahead. More important than efforts to improve local schools, they say, might be efforts aimed more directly at recruiting new employers for rural areas.

"There will not be an explosion of skilled jobs in the 1990's, either in rural areas or nationally,'' according to the report, "The Myth of the Coming Labor Shortage in Rural Areas.'' The authors said their conclusions are based largely on an examination of employment projections and other data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The researchers said that while education reforms may improve the outlook for rural youths, they may have to go outside their own labor market to use their more sophisticated abilities.

"Even under generous assumptions, rural areas appear unlikely to generate the demand-side conditions upon which an education-based supply-push strategy could be based,'' they write. "Instead, the demand-side conditions themselves appear to be a serious problem.''

The report adds that rural areas have already logged considerable progress in upgrading workers' skills. Researchers have found that the 9th-grade education of the median rural resident in 1960 has risen to a high-school diploma today.

Those skills increases have not been accompanied by employment or income gains, say the researchers, who expect the trend to continue.

The authors of the E.P.I. report join a growing list of economists and researchers challenging the findings of the "Workforce 2000'' study, which has established the context for the education and training policy debate in recent years. (See Education Week, Nov. 13, 1992.)

"A close look at the data, in short, casts doubt on the efficacy of enhanced education, by itself, as a strategy for rural economic development,'' Mr. Teixeira and Mishel argue, adding that "policies designed to increase the number of high-quality jobs stand a better chance, in the long run, of helping rural areas prosper.''--L.H.

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