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The disparity in job opportunities between Utahns living in urban areas and those in rural settings presents a unique and persistent challenge for state policy makers.

The disparity in job opportunities between Utahns living in urban areas and those in rural settings presents a unique and persistent challenge for state policymakers, but one the Utah Legislature seems willing to tackle this session with efforts we hope will eventually meet with measurable success.

One proposal represents an innovative approach to capturing the kinds of coveted technology-related jobs fueling growth along the Wasatch Front’s Silicon Slopes. A bill proposed by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, would direct Utah State University’s county extension services to offer high school and college-level programs to train students for freelance or online jobs that can be done remotely from wherever there is access to high-speed internet. There are no clear projections of just how many of those kinds of jobs can be opened up to rural residents, but the $2.1 million authorized by HB327 to start a pilot program would be money well spent.

The bill is in support of Gov. Gary Herbert’s rural jobs initiative that seeks to create 25,000 new jobs in non-urban areas in five years. Also connected to that initiative is a bill sponsored by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, which would create the Rural Employment Expansion Program under the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The bill, HB390, would offer “post-employment incentives” for private companies for every job created in designated areas. Already under GOED, companies are eligible for Rural Fast Track grants of up to $50,000 to expand operations and create additional jobs in outlying areas. Several grants have been awarded to companies in diverse fields — from professional land surveyors to insurance and investment businesses.

These efforts are critical to stemming the tide of out-migration from rural areas among young people seeking job opportunities concentrated in more urban areas. The exportation of young workers from small towns is changing the local culture in many communities and is threatening their future economic viability. “We are exporting our kids, and we need to figure out how to keep them and start thinking outside the box,” says Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson, who testified in support of the rural online initiative.

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While the problem afflicts many rural communities, it is particularly harsh in coal mining regions that have seen thousands of jobs lost as a result of a global trend away from fossil fuels. Near Rep. Noel’s district in southeastern Utah, several hundred jobs are set to disappear when a coal-fired power plant along the Utah-Arizona border is scheduled to close sometime next year. While Noel’s online training measure indeed speaks to original thinking, his separate efforts to push a lawsuit against California communities that have chosen to no longer buy electricity generated with Utah coal represents thinking very much inside the box. Noel and others would like the state to put its muscle toward forcing the continuation of the coal-fired electricity market in California and elsewhere, but macro trends suggest those efforts are bound to meet with futility.

Noel has proposed paying $2 million to lawyers to sue California cities moving away from coal-fired power. We think the $2 million he has proposed to invest in the online training program is much more likely to pay dividends to his constituents. For rural residents, there is more to be gained by harnessing resources to capture the jobs of the future, as opposed to clinging to traditional areas of employment that no longer provide realistic hope of future prosperity.