Tug of War

Technology is helping some towns keep their residents.

by / April 16, 2002
For some states, economic development is more than bringing jobs to a region to lower the unemployment rate: It's about saving small towns from extinction. North Dakota is one of those states, and economic-development officials hope to save as many rural towns as possible from dying a slow death.

For many of the state's rural residents, those small towns offer the only avenue to basic services, such as doctors, other health-care providers and even grocery stores.

"When people start leaving, there's no one to provide services," said Tara Holt, director of Women and Technology, a unit of the Bismarck-based Center for Technology and Business.

She cited Rugby, N.D., as a prime example of this scenario.

"This is a community that sees that they would be faced with extinction if they didn't get out and create some new opportunities for the people who live in the community," Holt said. "In Rugby, the hospital has led the way. The administration has taken an old nurses' dorm and created a technology lab in that dorm."

Holt said the hospital has long had a problem in getting licensed practical nurses (LPNs), so hospital brass created a system to work with a community college to educate nursing students from smaller communities so they can become LPNs.

"The skill of a 12-hour class translates into so much more," Holt said. "Now, you've got a vibrant community. You've got a hospital that's going to have employees. They've taken this whole thing out into the community; this community runs seven different classes per week, with probably 12 people in each class. They've changed their mentality, and technology is the basis of so many thing that the community relies on to stay alive."

Starting at Square One
Holt has organized a series of technology training courses for residents of rural towns for the last two years, and the training classes have reached approximately 7,000 people.

"I traveled into rural areas and went into businesses, and one of the things that I saw was that a lot of them had computers," she said. "But, if you started talking to them about what they used them for, guess what -- they had computes, but they didn't use them. They had no one to ask."

Getting such training to a rural population is difficult, Holt said, given that many of the people who need the training live three or four hours from the nearest city. Another problem was actually convincing the people that technology can be beneficial.

"We needed to change the mentality of everyone in the rural areas because there was a fear of technology, instead of embracing and using [it] to make things better," she said. "They really had a tendency to either pooh-pooh it or to damn it, because they didn't know about it."

The center's community computer training classes offer rural residents four courses: the introductory course; the intermediate course; the "Power-Up with Projects" course; and a "Build the Future Web Design" course. Trainers work with all ages of people, from children all the way to senior citizens.

"We wrote our own curriculum," she said. "We boiled it down to the simplest elements - here's what you have to know to run a computer - and left out all the extra things you don't need to know. We printed our books in a 14-point font, which may be a small thing, but it's turned into such a friendly thing, especially for senior citizens when they're looking back and forth between a book and a screen."

Once the curriculum was developed, Holt and her staff had to look for a place to test the effectiveness of the training programs.

"We found a community, Hettinger, in southwestern North Dakota, down in a corner where they're just desperate for anything," she said. "I thought we'd have about 20 students, and we had about 250 in the first few months. The community has a population of 1,200."

The sheer demand forced Holt to rethink her strategy of how to best reach rural residents, so she devised a plan where her staff trained key people to be able to go out and train other people. Finding the right people to take on the role of trainer was critical to the success of the community training classes.

"Every community has a few people who have decent computer skills, but, beyond that, are also good communicators and are respected in their community," she said. "In a rural area, if your peers don't respect you and you're teaching a class, they won't come. Finding those people was key to what we're doing."

Maintaining the Momentum
The need to press on in training efforts across the state is imperative, said Orlin Hanson, Economic Development Director of the Renville County Job Development Authority.

"This whole northwestern part of North Dakota is in dire shape," Hanson said. "The two counties right to the West of me - Burke County and Divide County - lost 25 percent of their population over the last 10 years. A good share of that is young couples leaving. My county lost 17 percent over the same course of time."

The first step to economic vitality in rural areas is developing a skilled workforce, he said, and luring companies to the state depends on having such a workforce ready.

"We're trying to promote economic development, and the best way we're going to do that is with private enterprise -- somebody who has a chance to make a profit," he said. "Profit is the greatest motivating factor that mankind has ever come up with. That's what we're trying to do out here -- getting a trainable workforce so those people who see they can make a profit, they'll come in."

Hanson, who lost his ranch in 1996, started as the economic development director approximately two years ago.

"I told the board, 'If I take it, my first objective is getting everybody, and I mean everybody, on computers and the Internet,'" he said. "We started running computer classes that winter in three little towns, and we had 189 people take the introductory and intermediate computer courses."

Holt's group of instructors trained the instructors who ultimately taught the 189 people who took the classes.

"We might be rural, but we're not isolated anymore," Hanson said.

Shane Peterson, News Editor