Geographic diversity: Dealing with rural-urban differences in the workplace

February 19, 2017 - by: Tammy Binford 0 COMMENTS

The rural-urban divide in America has had people talking since the 2016 presidential election, which showed a marked difference in the way urban and rural areas tend to vote. The 2016 election wasn’t the first sign of a divide, and individuals in both rural and urban areas often defy aggregate data, but various statistics show differences in attitudes and political opinions that seem to be defined by whether an area is urban or rural. Spring Urban and Countryside Landscape City Village Real Estate Summer

Such divisions also can be found in the workplace. For years, employers have touted the advantages of diversity and have worked toward racial, ethnic, religious, and gender diversity. But what about geographic diversity? Is there a business advantage to attracting a mix of people from rural and urban backgrounds?

Recent news reports have revealed how some universities have begun reaching out to rural students in an effort to increase geographic diversity on campus. So employers may soon follow that lead. A January 31 report on The New York Times website quotes the director of admissions at Texas A&M University as saying rural students bring “a unique perspective” to the campus environment. “In terms of diversity, geography is just as important as racial and ethnic,” he added.

The Times article also details how some colleges are giving special attention to potential students from rural areas. For example, the Drexel University College of Medicine serves rural students through its diversity office, and Clemson University offers rural students special scholarships.

If the focus on rural college students results in more such students gaining four-year degrees, employers needing employees with that credential may need to look at how they treat applicants from rural backgrounds.

Uphill battle?

Lisa R. Pruitt, a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Law, has studied the law and rural livelihoods as well as cultural differences, and she says employers trying to attain a diverse workforce in a rural area face challenges. But jobseekers from rural backgrounds also face challenges when seeking employment.

Pruitt cites a December 21, 2016, Harvard Business Review article detailing how jobseekers can put themselves at a disadvantage when they reveal their class status. Although the research wasn’t specifically about rural applicants, it illustrates the problem many rural jobseekers face sincenotable exceptions asidepeople from rural areas are less likely to be from wealthy, well-connected families.

The researchers’ study shows candidates with resumes that signal a wealthier class status were more successful in gaining interest from employers than resumes signaling a less wealthy status. For example, a resume showing an applicant with interests including sailing, polo, and classical music and whose college experience included serving as a peer mentor for first-year students was more likely to be favored over an otherwise identical resume showing an applicant who served as a peer mentor for first-generation college students and whose interests include track and field, pick-up soccer, and country music.

Pruitt also pointed to a research paper from 2013 showing stereotypes and bias toward rural people from Appalachia when they left their homes to work in cities in the 1930s and ’40s. The paper notes how some employers avoided hiring Appalachians because they considered them “violent, unintelligent, or unstable,” notions consistent with stereotypes perpetuated in the media.

The research substantiates how people raised in the working class are often passed over even if they have better and more prestigious credentials than others, Pruitt says.

Role of technology

Technology makes virtual teams more practical for employers, since workers needing to collaborate no longer have to gather in the same place. So technology potentially can lessen the urban-rural divide even when workers choose to live away from an employer’s location.

“Certainly I think technology has had an impact in terms of bringing down communications barriers and some of the social barriers,” Pruitt says. But she sees technology having a bigger impact on people with prestigious credentials working from places of rural gentrification, places such as the posh communities of Colorado’s Western Slope and Bozeman, Montana, all places that attract the sort of workers who hold high-level jobs.

Risks, benefits

While discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other classifications spelled out in antidiscrimination laws is prohibited, rural versus urban background doesn’t constitute a protected class. So employers discriminating based on geography don’t fall in a legal danger zone unless one of the protected classes also comes into play, but employers may want to do more than just avoid unlawful discrimination.

Pruitt says she sees value in geographic diversity in education and in the workplace as well. She says people who grew up on farms, in mining communities, and even rural communities with economies built on recreation bring different knowledge sets, particularly knowledge of spatial challenges inherent in rural areas.

For example, people from rural areas aren’t going to take for granted public transportation and the easy availability of public services that people from urban areas expect, and for some kinds of employers, that’s “incredibly important,” Pruitt says.

But employers in rural areas often face challenges related to opportunities to obtain job training for their employees. Having a sufficiently and appropriately trained labor force is a huge issue in rural American, Pruitt says.

Areas of opportunity

Although people from rural areas may face challenges finding work with some employers, their background can be a plus for other employers. “Many of the positions posted on AgCareers.com list agricultural experience as a preferred qualification,” Bonnie Johnson, a marketing associate with the job posting and human resources services website, says, adding that “employers have noted the challenge in recruiting qualified talent to rural locations.”

Johnson says many opportunities exist in rural areas for location managers, custom applicators, animal production, sales, and more. “Students with a rural background, familiar with the lifestyle, are in demand and often a perfect fit for these agricultural positions,” she says.

Johnson also cites statistics showing progress in gender diversity among agricultural employers. She says the 2016-2017 U.S. Agribusiness HR Review asked agricultural employers if the proportion of female employees within their workforce had grown over the past five years, and 55 percent said yes, 17 percent were unsure, and 28 percent said it had stayed the same.

A 2015 survey on gender roles and equality in agribusiness shows that more than 80 percent of both genders felt that the attitude toward women working in agribusiness had changed for the better in the past 10 years, Johnson says. The survey also says nearly 90 percent of women felt optimistic about their opportunity for advancement in ag, while only 56 percent felt optimistic about their opportunities for advancement outside of agriculture.

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