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Strengthening Rural Economies

November 02, 2022

A new University of Idaho Extension program aims to strengthen rural communities by teaching Idaho residents computer skills needed to work remotely and helping small businesses engage in a growing digital economy.

The state Legislature awarded about $1.3 million during its past session to fund the new Digital Economy Program (DEP) for three years. Paul Lewin, University of Idaho Extension community development specialist in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is the project’s principal investigator.

The program’s Remote Work Professional Certificate course, which equips participants with the skills needed for a virtual career, will welcome its first group of 15 students in November. DEP will also fund web-based entrepreneurial training modules to help rural business owners expand sales via online venues. For those who lack even basic computer skills, DEP staff will collaborate with county UI Extension offices to launch Tech Changemakers. 4-H teenagers throughout the state will be recruited to teach beginner computer lessons under the supervision of an adult volunteer.

DEP’s manager, Amber Smyer, believes its three prongs will increase household incomes and boost tax bases of rural Idaho communities. Historically, jobs have been harder to find in rural communities. Now that more employers are offering staff the flexibility to work from home, however, the serenity of country living has become a major draw for small towns.

“When looking at the impact we hope this whole package gives, it’s really about empowering families,” Smyer said. “It’s about job creation and retaining the local talent, which would all then strengthen our rural communities."

UI Extension is partnering with Utah State University Extension, which started the Remote Work Professional Certificate course in 2018 and will provide the instructors and curriculum. UI Extension will hire regional staff, who will help Smyer grade coursework, support Idaho students and direct them to pertinent resources. The month-long course, offered entirely online, entails four to six hours of weekly self-paced work and a one-hour weekly live video workshop. Participants must have reliable access to broadband internet, basic computer proficiency, and access to a computer with a web camera and microphone.

Assignments will include creating a LinkedIn profile, sending digital messages on platforms such as Slack and completing a team project. The full cost is $150, but the state funding will cover $100 of the enrollment fee for Idahoans who come from a rural community or can demonstrate financial need. Other Idaho residents will receive a $50 discount. Smyer plans to publicize the course more widely and expand class sizes in 2023.

Idaho-based businesses will receive priority when DEP seeks to place its graduates in remote jobs.

“The focus really is on supporting rural communities — not to say there won’t be benefits to all Idaho communities — but that is a focus area because rural communities tend to be left behind in that digital divide because they haven’t had consistent and affordable access to digital resources,” Smyer said.

The e-commerce training should be active in mid-2023, helping rural business owners and entrepreneurs access new markets and expand sales online. It will entail identifying existing resources and filling in the gaps by developing free, self-paced training modules entrepreneurs may access online. For example, the modules could help agricultural producers sell directly to consumers and access new markets for value-added products made from their commodities. It may also help rural small business owners expand their customer base, accessing clients located in urban areas or in other states.

Those who lack a sufficient computer background to take the courses will be encouraged to participate in Tech Changemakers, which will use computer literacy curriculum developed for 4-H youth to teach. A target population will be senior citizens, who may wish to increase their computer skills to access digital medical records or do their shopping online, for example. DEP leaders have been in discussions with Idaho’s public library system about providing venues with computer access for Tech Changemakers. Class offerings will be promoted locally once scheduled by participating county 4-H programs.

Applications for the Remote Work Professional Certificate courses are accepted on a rolling basis.

“While the accelerating trend of digitalization and its potential for advancing development outcomes is indisputable, its net impact depends on the level of the digital readiness of communities and citizens to take advantage of the opportunities presented,” Lewin said. “Many people, especially rural and minority individuals, are inadequately prepared to capture opportunities emerging from digitalization. Digital divides, differences in digital readiness and the high concentration of digital market power all point to the need for effective technical assistance efforts and better learning opportunities for disadvantaged groups to ensure that minorities and rural residents are prepared to lead and thrive in today’s economy.”

The Digital Economy Program is seeking Idahoans passionate about workforce and economic development to join the team. UI Extension is hiring regional instructional coordinators to implement the program.

Published in Catching Up with CALS

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu


Contact

University Communications and Marketing

Fax: 208-885-5841

Email: uinews@uidaho.edu

Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts