Legislature aims to grow rural jobs through power of the internet
A Utah lawmaker recently introduced a bill to establish a pilot program that aims to help people living in rural areas take advantage of online jobs to generate economic opportunities and help communities retain young adults who are leaving to find jobs in more urban areas.
Last week, a Utah House of Representatives committee gave the measure a favorable recommendation after it was introduced by Rep. Michael Noel, a Republican whose district includes Kane and San Juan counties.
The bill, H.B. 327, outlines a program that would be administered through the Utah State University Extension Office that would assist people living in struggling rural areas find freelance job and business opportunities online.
“We have had quite a big focus on unemployment and employment in the state of Utah, and there is no question that Utah is in an upward financial situation,” Noel said to members of the House of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee on Feb. 15. “But, the one area where we are not seeing that great support and increase of jobs is in rural Utah.”
Noel said many of the counties in his district are facing job and population decreases. He said the bill was created to support Gov. Gary Herbert’s initiative to create 25,000 jobs in five years in rural areas of the state.
The three-year pilot program would initially be administered in certain geographical areas based on unemployment rates and access to high-speed internet and where a large percentage of high school graduates leave in search of work. As part of the program, participants would be provided training modules to develop marketing materials, relationships with technology companies and partnerships with websites that list freelance remote online opportunities.
“Tourism is expanding. However, many jobs do not support a family,” he said. “This is a family- and rural-friendly bill.”
Jeff Jones, Summit County’s economic development director, said while the county does experience a large export of high school graduates, the county would not be a likely candidate for the program.
“I don’t think as an economic developer this matches that well with Summit County’s needs,” he said. “In Coalville, the loss of graduates is reflected and we do see some of that. But, I think what they are trying to do as part of the bill is target populations where the residents aren’t going to college and they want to stay local.”
Jones said the bill will likely target counties like Garfield and Wayne where unemployment rates exceed 10 percent. He said Summit County’s adjusted unemployment rate at the end of 2017 was just 2.3 percent.
“Because our unemployment rate is so low and our proximity to markets, meaning our geography is still pretty close to an urban center, and there may not be that much benefit to Summit County,” he said.
Janna Young, Summit County’s director of intergovernmental affairs, said the county’s leaders will still monitor the program’s movement through the Legislature because of its potential applicability on the East Side.
“A lot of people in rural areas want to stay because they love that quality of life,” she said. “It is certainly something we are looking at in our community because we are trying to get some activity over there. We are definitely interested in seeing how that will play out.”
The measure has gained support from several of the commissioners in the counties where the program could be implemented, including an endorsement from the Utah Association of Counties.
“We are focused up here on dot-coms and manufacturing jobs, but the rural nature of Utah and the roads and the access makes it more conducive to online,” Noel said. “We do have a highway, it’s called the internet highway. We want to be able to encourage people to hold a job in their community and make living wages.”
Approximately $2.27 million would be appropriated for the program, beginning July 1 through June of next year. If approved, the program would run through 2021.
To track the bill’s status, go to https://le.utah.gov/~2018/bills/static/HB0327.html
Meredith Reed was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Summit County Democratic Party and said she sees an opportunity to ride the so-called blue wave that saw a Democratic surge nationally and within the state.