Teaching teachers in West Alabama

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: Addressing a complicated rural philanthropy puzzle.
02: Roadside Attractions: Key findings from ‘Why Rural Matters’ report.

Before we dive in this week, I wanted to let you know that now through Dec. 31 the Open Campus board of directors and longtime donors will match all donations, up to a total of $20,000. That means that, with your support, we can bring in $40,000 to fund coverage like my work on rural issues. Make your tax-deductible donation today.

A student intern at KEITH Manufacturing Company in Madras, Ore. Photo: Courtesy

 01: Postcards

Mike Feigner, the plant manager at the KEITH Manufacturing Company’s facility in Madras, Ore. has seen firsthand manufacturing’s shifting role in rural America over the last two decades.

Throughout it all, finding the skilled talent necessary for advanced manufacturing work has been a consistent challenge. “I’ve been doing this job since 2006, and it seems like you always have a labor problem,” he says. 

The company employs about 200 people locally, making it a top employer in Madras, a town of less than 8,000 people. The rural area has been mostly known for its agriculture or mill industries for most of the last century.

“We suck up a lot of that skilled labor that is a great fit for us quickly, and then we’re trying to fit it with other people who maybe aren’t looking for that long-term commitment to learning those skills,” Feigner says.

That’s led to high turnover rates. The company has no choice but to train and support homegrown talent if it wants to continue producing the self-unloading conveyor belt system that has become a staple in waste and recycling trucks worldwide. 

One thing that’s helped? A partnership with Oregon STEM and its Spark Oregon earn-and-learn initiative that helped pay for KEITH Manufacturing to employ four local high school interns for the summer.

That support helped the students justify doing the internship when they could have been making more working full time at the local McDonalds for the summer, Feigner says. Working three days a week for two months, the students were exposed to everything from welding and forklifts to assembly and engineering work with the R&D team.

In the end, Feigner was even able to hire one of the 18-year-old students, who had just graduated from the local high school. “I think this is exactly what the country needs,” he says. “I’ve told the owner of the company, ‘Even if we get one student every two or three years that ends up being a direct hire, I would call that a win.’”

His experience shows that such programs can be meaningful for manufacturers in rural areas, a key area of focus nationwide as the US Census reported in October that 616,000 manufacturing jobs remain unfilled after 1.4 million were lost at the onset of the pandemic. 

In this case, KEITH Manufacturing was one of 28 employer partners that Oregon STEM was able to partner with to help pay for 86 interns across the state. The Catalyze Challenge supported that effort with a $500,000 grant — and nationwide has  awarded nearly $10 million to solutions that bridge “the gap between classrooms and the workforce."

With less than 100 students impacted, traditional philanthropies may struggle to justify the cost of funding rural programs like the Spark Oregon initiative. However, funders like Catalyze are increasingly willing to take a big picture approach. “We are recognizing that grant making is also about learning from grantees about what is happening, what’s working and isn’t and how that can be replicated across the United States,” says Michelle Cheang, director of the Catalyze Challenge.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Dakota Pawlicki, director of Talent Hubs at CivicLab, about the significant challenges rural areas encounter when seeking nonprofit dollars. Many face a catch-22 where philanthropies want proof of concept before issuing a grant — but many rural areas don’t have that prior experience, because nonprofits prioritize urban areas in grantmaking. 

“If you’re asking for impact per dollar, you’re going to count out rural. And it’s had some pretty tough effects in places you might not even expect,” says Matt Dunne, executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation based in his hometown of Hartland, Vt. 

“For example, the biggest challenge with economic mobility in America is if you’re both Black and rural, yet most of the work for BIPOC communities focuses on cities,” Dunne says.

The recent high school graduate pictured here, Chris, was hired full-time by KEITH Manufacturing after the internship, which was supported by the Catalyze Challenge. Photo: Courtesy

Embracing experimentation 

Philanthropies with a technology focus or background have been particularly creative in funding education and workforce programs. That’s fitting, says Dunne, a former member of the Vermont state legislature who was also the first head of Google’s Community Affairs division.

“The 2016 presidential election was a wake-up call to a lot of people that there is a deep deep divide, because you saw the most pronounced separation along urban-rural lines that we have seen in a long time,” Dunne says. 

“If you dig into it, a lot of it has to do with the economy and the impacts that a completely unequal recovery from the 2008 recession led to. And if you look at the driver of that divide, it really comes down to the winners and losers of the knowledge economy driven by technology.”

One example of that trend: The Siegel Family Endowment, founded by the billionaire computer scientist and entrepreneur David Siegel, who conducted research at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT before starting the hedge fund Two-Sigma. 

“People think of K-12 as education. But for us, it’s really about learning from the cradle to the grave, your entire life, both in school and as part of the workforce,” says Josh Elder, vice-president and head of grantmaking at the Endowment.

In most tech companies, experimentation is seen as an essential part of the scientific method. That ethos shows in the nonprofit’s greater willingness to listen to what a rural community says is needed and may work, and potentially fund it even if the concept hasn’t been empirically proven out yet.

“We embrace the idea that philanthropy should operate as society’s risk capital,” Elder says, citing the scholarship of Arnold J. Zurcher and Rob Reich, who argue that government and private companies often can’t risk investing in programs without proven metrics or short term results, leaving it to foundations to fill the gap by “de-risking” solutions first.

“We want to be able to support early stage things that others might not look at,” Elder says. “And when you think of marginalized communities, there are so many systematic barriers that prevent them from passing all the traditional risk mitigation procedures that traditional philanthropy relies on.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • ‘Why Rural Matters’ report is out. The annual study by the National Rural Education Association is well worth the read. Key findings include the fact that many rural areas continue to lack basic internet access (13.4% in rural areas, compared to 9.9% in urban ones) and that while rural areas are showcasing equity in gifted and talented programs when it comes to gender, they’re struggling to exhibit the same level of equity when it comes to race.

  • ‘From the Farmlands to the Quad.’ This Chronicle of Higher Education piece looks at some of the college access challenges rural Black students face, from a lack of family support to challenges around transportation and representation. The setting? Sussex Central, a majority Black High School in south central Virginia, where the school counselor describes the economy as “Peanuts, pork, and pine.”

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