Technology has a knack for accelerating the pace of economic change. But in rural areas, that change isn’t always welcomed with open arms.
Dr. Don Albrecht runs the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University and he’s also the author of “Rethinking Rural: Global Community and Economic Development in the Small Town West.” He’s spent a lot of time studying how rural communities change and why.
He was in Soldotna on Friday at the invitation of the Soldotna Rotary Club to facilitate a roundtable discussion about the different visions for how we might handle change on the Kenai. He started by filling a white board with brief statements from attendees explaining how they’d like to see life here in 10 or 20 years. Concepts like good education, a diverse economy and keeping kids around dominated the ideas. Albrecht says those are common themes wherever he goes.
"Rural communities are struggling because their traditional sources of employment are declining — agriculture, logging, mining, manufacturing, the number of jobs is going down quite precipitously in these industries and that's where these communities have been dependent. This is no different in a lot of ways. They're struggling to find a new way of making themselves economically strong."
In Alaska, and specifically on the Kenai, that means keeping things strong in an economy dominated by two industries that are notoriously boom and bust — oil and fishing. But we’re not in the desperate throes of a full-blown economic crisis here. There’s time to think ahead and think about what life might look like when and if those mainstay industries become even less dependable.
Albrecht says the peninsula benefits from possessing world-class amenities, our outdoor recreation opportunities are pretty remarkable. That’s a big draw. But the bigger issue is dealing with fear of change.
"They've always been an oil community and by darn, we'll always be an oil community. And so helping them realize that you can keep oil and gas as it exists, but we need to supplement that and add on to it. What I believe is being connected to the rest of the world is huge for rural areas."
And taking advantage of the new opportunities technology can provide will often mean a different strategy when it comes to education. Kenai Peninsula College Director Gary Turner says that despite all the projections saying more and more jobs will demand some sort of post-secondary training and all the data saying college degrees are a good investment, it’s still not the easiest sell here, where people are used to high-paying jobs that don’t demand high-level degrees.
"That's changing. As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace a lot of these jobs are becoming much more technical. It takes less people to do it. And we're telling students you do need, say, a process technology degree to get into those fields, but it's still out there that, 'Heck, my mom did it. She didn't go to school, I'm going to go get it and I'm going to make it on my own."
The Rotary Club plans to hold similar forums in the future, perhaps on an annual basis, with the eventual goal of developing policies that will help ease the transition from the economy we know today to a more diverse system that takes advantage of technology to bring more opportunities to more people without losing the small-town attributes that have defined the area for generations.