Retaining Talent in Rural Lawrence County

For a rural region in the hills of southern Indiana, Lawrence County has had an outsized impact on the built world. The limestone from its quarries has sheathed the Empire State Building, the Pentagon and the National Cathedral. It has provided the building blocks for state’s county courthouses, the historic buildings of Indiana University and the dome of the Jefferson Memorial.

This abundant export has been a key driver of Lawrence County’s economy since the turn of the 20th Century, and it has remained vital even as modern buildings increasingly favor structures of metal and glass.

But there is a more important export that Lawrence County is working to not ship out: its people. The county wants to keep its 46,000 residents from leaving the region for opportunities elsewhere. Doing so means better educating and training them for the jobs that exist now, and preparing them for the jobs the county hopes to attract in the future. (The county’s population has declined by two percent in the last decade.)

It’s a tall order. Years after the heyday of the limestone quarries, there is a stark disconnect between the demands of Lawrence County employers (and hoped-for employers) and the skills the potential workforce currently has to offer. Lawrence is one of the few Indiana counties in which high school attainment has actually dropped. Fluctuating in recent years, it fell from 88.8 in 2014 to 82.2 in 2018, and has been as low as 79.9 (in 2011). In 2021, the graduation rate was 87.4. “There are 2,500 people in Lawrence County who don’t even have a high school diploma,” says Joe Timbrook, director of career development for the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council.

Postsecondary attainment is also below the norm: Just 16 percent of the county’s residents have higher education degrees, and only 9 percent of those are bachelor’s degrees -- 10 percent below the national average. Those who do have such degrees the county has trouble keeping. For instance, the county takes in a slice of Naval Support Activity Crane, a large U.S. Navy facility that employs many skilled, college-educated workers, but most of Crane’s 3,300 employees live elsewhere.

It’s a frustrating picture given the “help wanted” signs popping up all over. Beyond the perennial retail openings, jobs are also going begging in the higher-paying manufacturing sector that largely drives the local economy. Among them is an 800-employee General Motors plant and many smaller manufacturers. The limestone business is still important, but since hand-carving has given way to machines, it employs fewer people than it once did.

What the region’s employers want are workers with not just specific job skills, but so-called soft skills, such as the ability to work in teams, communicate clearly and keep to a schedule. Without the latter, it’s hard for prospective workers to train for the former. So the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council, a collaboration of cross-sector partners, is working in particular to help its residents graduate from high school, or earn their equivalency degrees, and providing the wrap-around supports they need to do so.

“We are focusing on [many other factors], but right now it’s ‘let’s give people Step One, which is to get your high school diploma, then let’s see how we can help you figure out Step Two, whether it is post-secondary education or more skills training – whatever it is that you need to have a better life and make a higher wage and a living wage,’” says Timbrook.

seven Lawrence County residents became the tenth graduating class of the Lawrence County Introduction to Local Jobs and Skills program

The county’s young people have various reasons for dropping out of high school, one of which is the immediate availability of minimum wage jobs. But the county has a higher-than-average number of residents who are neither in school nor working. Among these are people who have had run-ins with the law. Focusing on this population, the growth council has secured arrangements with local judges and prosecutors to require qualifying offenders to get their high school diploma or equivalency degree as a condition of their probation or plea bargain. The practice has a particular benefit, Timbrook says: “Sometimes you have a hard time finding people [who have dropped out], but with justice-involved individuals we have a higher concentration of community members without diplomas.”

Lawrence County has also suffered from a lack of adult learning opportunities. The county had an adult learning facility, says Timbrook, but its offerings didn’t line up with current employer and worker demands. So two years ago, the growth council worked with a learning center at a local school to better align it with employers and bring it more in tune with student needs. In a three-week program, students are introduced to local jobs and the related skills, with basic lessons on machinery parts, machining, welding, CPR and first aid.

The classes also aim to develop students’ soft skills in an effort to address repeated employer concerns about job applicants’ readiness to even train for certain jobs. “They are saying workers aren’t showing up on time, they aren’t able to work hard, they can’t read a tape measure. Math is hard for some people,” says Timbrook. “Employers say ‘give me somebody who can work with me and I can train them [on the rest.’]”

The ability to collaborate is one of the capabilities the program works to develop, hands-on, through joint efforts. “When employers hire justice-involved individuals, they have worked together for three weeks on projects so they are prepared to work together in the workplace, as well,” says Timbrook. “We didn’t necessarily think about that [benefit] when we designed the program, but that is the feedback we are getting.”

Although justice-involved individuals account for most of the students in the program, many other community members are now signing up for the program, as well. “These other community members have no connection with the justice system, but this gave us the model we needed to market it [to others],” says Timbrook. “It gives them a next step. Do they need their HSE [high school equivalency]? Do they need more skills? Do they just need a job? Do they need postsecondary? We also found they become good candidates for apprenticeship programs.”

"What Lawrence County lacks in resources, it makes up for in its partnerships, neighborliness and perseverance."

The Lawrence County Economic Growth Council is also working with area high schools and community organizations to make sure that struggling or disengaged students have the academic, social and other supports they need to complete their degrees. Timbrook says, “The schools don’t have enough resources for students who struggle with the concept of school, with the whole school environment. We are working on the continuum so we can meet our residents wherever they are.”

Among other efforts, the growth council is resurrecting the adult literacy program the county discontinued four years ago, doing so after it realized that some participants in the high school equivalency program couldn’t read at the basic level needed to grasp the material.

Behind all these efforts to boost attainment and employment is a commitment to cross-sector collaboration and systems change. Many organizations had been working to address Lawrence County’s challenges, but they were operating separately, sometimes at cross purposes. And attracting business couldn’t be separated from developing the workforce. “We realize if we are going to do all those things we have to be able to talk about the quality of our workforce and the relationships we have with our current employers,” Timbrook says. “So it’s all wrapped up in one big package.”

With a substantial grant from the state of Indiana, the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council came together in 2018, convening multiple partners from education (K-12 and postsecondary), business, community groups, non-profits and social services, with a smaller group serving as a guiding team. In 2022, it received a grant from the IU Health Foundation to continue its work.

The council got off to a good start, but it also saw how participation in CivicLab’s “Building Rural Community Learning Systems” could help it sharpen its work. “We were growing and doing well, but I felt we would get out of control or lose momentum if we didn’t work together as a county and a community,” said Timbrook. “We are a little different from some of the others [in the rural cohort] because we were motoring along, but we needed help structurally, as well as help rethinking so we continue to improve.”

Facilitated by CivicLab tools and coaches, the Lawrence County team workshopped and whittled down its guiding question: “How might we work together to prepare Lawrence County community members for college, careers and civic life in a rapidly changing workforce society?” They then articulated their goals: Increase post-secondary attainment to 45 percent; increase adult education training programs, certification and employment.

Thanks to the growth council’s efforts, over 100 Lawrence County residents have completed their high school equivalency degrees, 50 have completed workforce programs, and many have found full-time jobs or taken the next steps for additional education and training. They have done so despite the handicaps posed by a county that is truly rural: More half of its residents live outside of a city or town; there is no nearby interstate and virtually no public transportation outside the county seat of Bedford; and internet service in places can be unreliable.

Yet, said the growth council in its recent funding request to IU Health: “What Lawrence County lacks in resources, it makes up for in its partnerships, neighborliness and perseverance. In short, if the project is a success in rural Lawrence County, then it can be expanded in larger communities where greater resources are available.”

At the same, the growth council hopes that with successful implementation of its initiatives, and good results, it can serve as a model to small rural communities elsewhere.

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This piece was produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Headden.  Susan is a contributing author to CivicLab, a former senior editor at “U.S. News & World Report” magazine, and a freelance education writer based in Washington, D.C.  

Banner image by Owen Rupp on Unsplash