Ohio’s Appalachian region was once highly dependent on heavy industry, agriculture and mining. Like other states previously reliant on manufacturing and industry, the majority of jobs today are in health care, retail and service industries. Poverty remains high. While some communities have improved over the years, many are still adjusting to disappearing sectors and lack of basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems. Surrounding metropolitan areas have seen increases in employment opportunities with better pay and technological skills. But those jobs haven’t made it into these rural counties.
Education remains a challenge, as well. High school completion rate is around 68 percent. And those that do leave high school are often unprepared for skilled labor jobs or even community college. Rural schools are less likely than those in non-rural schools to offer programs that prepare students for current and anticipated jobs. The offerings typically reflect the differences in labor markets. Jobs that are available are usually in the nearest city, which could be up to an hour’s drive or more. Next to joining the military, vocational or technical schools can sometimes be another option for students in rural areas to advance skills and learning.
Jobs in the Appalachian area of Ohio are starting to demand a technically trained workforce in math and science-related fields, including electrical maintenance and computerized numerical control occupations. Tamra Pace, Director of Communications at Zane Sate College, sees a rise in corporate responsibility. To help accelerate an incoming workforce, companies are requiring an Associate’s degree for jobs that previously required a Bachelor’s degree. “This results in increased levels of responsibility and mobility within a corporation,” said Pace. “American Electric Power, one of the biggest corporations in the area, is hiring our graduates with a degree in Electrical Engineering Technologies to fill technical jobs previously filled with personnel with Bachelor’s degrees. And with the aging population, health-related occupations are in great demand.”
Hocking Community College is taking a different approach. The school has designed programs in order to attract businesses. Green companies and fuel cell application companies are growing in the Canton and Athens areas of Ohio. Lynn Hull, Director of Enrollment, says Hocking is taking advantage of advancing technological fields. “Hocking is trying to be on the front end of what we hope is the future of the state of Ohio,” said Hull. “We’re trying to increase the green collar job workforce, so when it happens, these young people will be the best and brightest and ready.”
But getting those young people to the starting line has proven difficult. Hocking is not alone in seeing a noticeable increase in remedial classes for students in reading and math. “These students are educationally disenfranchised from an early age and it gets worse over time,” said Hull. “Teaching to the test methods are unproductive. All learners are different, and more kids lack basic skills at an early age in impoverished areas. We need to make knowledge relevant to real world skills.” Hull’s recommendation to make reading and math seem relevant to students by making learning a hands-on experience fits the model of other successful alternative schools. “We feel hands-on training, in-field training, sensory training technical schools are what students need more of,” said Hull. “It is in these environments where students truly excel in learning.”