It’s safe to say life after COVID-19 may never return to the way it was before.
And while we endured significant hardship during the pandemic in Eastern Kentucky, today a new set of opportunities is knocking on our door — ones that may help unseat the challenges we’ve been facing for decades at home.
We live in a remarkable place.
From the Red River Gorge to the Breaks Interstate Park, the beauty of our region draws visitors from all over the world.
Our people are remarkable, too. Eastern Kentuckians have shown resilience time and time again — in the face of COVID-19, and amid decades of population loss.
When coal plants packed up, so many of our friends and neighbors faced the difficult decision of whether to leave home to seek economic opportunity, or stay and hold out hope for change.
But the internet — and the opportunities it brings — is a game changer for our situation, an equalizer for rural areas like Eastern Kentucky.
With remote work, we can now be a competitive place for career and economic growth. And our workforce can finally access the high-paying jobs our region has been seeking for decades.
Also, as remote workers uproot their lives from big cities in search of a better quality of life, we have the opportunity to attract new residents, ones who genuinely appreciate all Eastern Kentucky has to offer.
A dual approach — of retaining our current workforce and attracting a new population of remote workers — can help reverse our region’s population challenges, and have a significant economic impact on our communities.
But if we don’t take action on delivering 100% broadband coverage right now, the obstacles we face will continue well into the future.
Remote work is the most significant opportunity to come knocking on our door in our lifetimes.
There are four steps you need to take today to get started.
Step #1: Invest in and retain your existing workforce
To retain your existing workforce, you’re going to need to help your residents transition into this new era of remote work. With the right resources, they can start applying for the thousands of remote jobs available today, instead of moving away in search of other opportunities.
One of the toughest aspects of securing remote work today is the application and interviewing process. Many people applying for remote jobs for the first time struggle with the up-front requirements.
But by becoming a job-training resource, you can help your residents succeed.
To help your residents exceed a prospective employer’s expectations, you can create web pages, training workshops, or written guides related to job applications and interviewing skills.
Your resources should cover each of the following:
- How to write a resume
- How to write a cover letter
- How to set up a LinkedIn profile
- How to prepare for an effective job interview
- How to manage your online & social media presence to get hired
- How to lead meetings and speak in public
- How to use Microsoft Office
- How to develop time management and negotiation skills
You’ll also want to make residents aware of opportunities and financial support for job certifications.
Certifications are an affordable way to acquire the skills and knowledge needed for a specific career path, and are readily available online these days.
Some residents might be eligible for grants, discounts, and financial aid, including:
Finally, to help transition your residents into the remote work economy, you’ll need to show them just how many remote jobs are available to them right now.
In the full guide, we’ve collected samples of remote jobs in some of the fastest-growing sectors today, where you can explore titles, salary ranges, and the expected growth for each type of position.
It’s safe to say just about all your residents could find gainful, remote employment, no matter their work experience or education level. It’s up to local leaders to seize this critical moment and invest in the requirements of a remote workforce to sustain the wellbeing of our region.
Step #2: Expand your broadband connections
Our residents enjoy the peace that comes with rural life, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But the distances between residences and town centers make it challenging for a private company to justify the cost of installing broadband for all our Eastern Kentucky neighbors.
Bringing broadband to your community boils down to three steps.
- Create an updated broadband map of your county. This should show you the places that have strong connections to broadband, those areas that are underserved, and the locations that are completely lacking.
- Turn the map into a categorized list. Places that need broadband connections the most should be at the top.
- Estimate costs. For priority areas, calculate a conservative range of fees for installation of broadband connections.
With this map and list in hand, you’ll have a leg up when it comes to applying for grants and other funding opportunities as they become available.
It will also set you up as a preferred partner to do business with.
Successful public-private partnerships (PPPs) make it possible to navigate through these roadblocks to bring connectivity to 100% of Eastern Kentuckians.
These steps will bring you to the top of the list for a PPP:
- Enacting dig-once policies, where a preferred public partner keeps private providers updated on upcoming digging projects in key areas, acting as a facilitator so the private entity can install broadband at the same time.
- Making water line locators readily available, to minimize the risk of hitting a water line when burying fiber, decreasing overall project time and costs.
- Being proactive with a make-ready policy, to ensure telephone lines are repaired and ready for fiber install.
When you start to plan last-mile broadband for your community, try not to get too overwhelmed. We need to concentrate on accomplishing our last mile goals one neighborhood, one city, and one county at a time.
To take action today, every county judge and mayor should be mapping out exactly where their unserved and underserved broadband communities are, and determining the estimated cost of what it will take to connect those communities.
Step #3: Win funding to bring last-mile broadband to your county
According to the Broadband USA Federal Funding Guide, there are millions of dollars of grants and other funding sources available today to those who apply for it.
If our local leaders are ready to meet the task of applying for grants and broadband expansion programs, they’ll be first in line to match their priority areas with funding opportunities.
There are three critical steps for winning broadband funding in your county:
Clarify your exact broadband needs
- Designate a group of individuals to be on a fiber board for your county.
- Support statewide broadband data-collection efforts.
- Read the Last Mile Guide to learn what it will take to bring broadband to your county.
Prepare the strongest funding applications possible
- Develop an implementation plan.
- Leverage applicant resources on Grants.gov and SAM.gov.
- Use data-rich insights to help your application stand out.
- Consider contracting a local government grant writer to support your efforts.
You should also be prepared for new funding opportunities coming down the pipeline.
Step 4: Attract a modern workforce from outside Eastern Kentucky
As we said earlier, if you grew up here, it can be easy to forget that Eastern Kentucky features some of the most stunning landscapes in the United States.
What if those who appreciate our way of life had the opportunity to make a home here?
From 2012-2020, coal severance taxes declined from $298 million to an all-time low of $58.8 million. This 82% decrease in just eight years clarifies the need for local governments to diversify and stabilize their revenue streams.
As remote workers trade their expensive rents for happier lives outside of major cities, Eastern Kentucky could be just the place for these new residents to settle down.
The impact of new residents will be significant for our local businesses.
Just one family moving into a community could bring $23,845 of spending per year on core necessities, such as groceries, child care, and entertainment.
And, with the proper incentives on state, county, or local levels, new residents will produce a long-term ROI for locations that implement them.
As we incentivize the right people to move to our region — those who will start businesses, create jobs, and hire local residents — their contributions will elevate our communities along with them.
Conclusion: Remote work in Eastern Kentucky will carry us into the future
If you implement the ideas in this guide, there’s a strong chance your county will see a dramatic reversal in population loss over the next decade or sooner. With remote work, we can strengthen our already-resilient communities with increased economic opportunity.
It’s a free resource that provides comprehensive action steps about public-private partnerships, funding opportunities for broadband, remote work incentives, and training checklists and resources for existing residents.
At the end of the day, we’re all working towards the same goal: bringing prosperity to Eastern Kentucky residents.
Nothing could be more important.