by Chris Hutchinson, Sr. Vice President of Engagement, Eleven Fifty Academy
I’m a city guy. I’ve lived in Indianapolis since 2000, and in that time I’ve watched from a distance while Indiana’s rural spaces have shrunk and become increasingly isolated. That’s what happens when manufacturing jobs leave town. Big ag makes it harder for farmers to make a living with their trade, and internet service providers leave remote communities in the dust when it comes to broadband infrastructure.
I’m thinking about tech infrastructure because it’s a natural part of my job as the Senior Vice President of Engagement at Eleven Fifty Academy. Every day, I work to reach people with our tech bootcamps as a way of creating new opportunities—that means women, veterans, and people of color. But it also means building great strategic partnerships with organizations like Wabash Heartland Innovation Network to help provide them with skilled tech talent businesses in communities that need growth. Opening the doors of tech to people in these rural spaces has huge potential—not just on the individual level for those looking for new careers in places where the old employers have long since left town, but for entire communities working towards a brighter economic tomorrow.
Bringing tech opportunities to underserved, rural communities is possible. When it works, it’s the result of a concerted effort by economic development organizations, ISPs, employers, and educators like Eleven Fifty. When it works, it can chart a new course for communities like Jay County, Indiana. Here’s that story.
A Closer Look at Jay County
Sitting on the eastern border with Ohio, Jay County is a quintessential Midwestern agricultural community. The low, flat landscape surrounding the Salamonie River makes it an ideal place for huge swaths of farmland. There are only six cities within the county limits, with a few dozen unincorporated communities spread throughout. All together, the population hovers around 20,000 people. Most of the work in the area is tied to the agricultural industry, and the average household income is just shy of $48,000 per year. There are several manufacturers employing locals, as well, including FCC and Tyson.
Like many rural areas that have long survived on agriculture and manufacturing, Jay County has long been at a crossroads. That’s not to say that unemployment is unusually high; it sits at just 4.8%. But a widespread economic shift is a cause for concern for anybody thinking about the long-term economic viability of the area.
That’s why I was immediately intrigued when we made contact with MyFarms, a growing tech company based in Portland, Indiana.
MyFarms: Ag Experts Building Ag Tech
When it comes to homegrown tech startups, MyFarms couldn’t have a better story. The Fennig family founded MyFarms after examining how supply chains benefit from shared data and applying those same principals to the crops on their Hoosier homestead farm. They’ve built their tech around a mission to maximize the food supply, empower farmers, retailers, processors, and consumer brands to work together to find new efficiencies.
An ag tech company leveraging the boots-on-the-ground experience of farmers right here in Jay County. It’s a thing of beauty.
We’re working with MyFarms to pilot a new Eleven Fifty Academy initiative called the Gap Program, a paid internship that provides financial assistance to organizations interested in hiring entry-level tech positions. The program serves our state’s newest technology professionals by providing real on-the-job training not only in programming or cybersecurity, but also with industry-specific knowledge that’s tough to learn in a purely academic setting. Interns will become experts in an industry while simultaneously sharpening and applying their technology skills on real projects. The program calls for a three-month subsidized probationary period that allows organizations the opportunity to fully vet and train first-time workers.
This is just one example of what it looks like to shift talent from one kind of work to another. Tech has the potential to take people out of fields and off of production lines, but it also creates opportunities. When you factor in the work of organizations like WHIN building out inventive tech infrastructure like broadband blimps in rural areas, it’s easy to see a path forward.
The Future of Tech Must Be Equal for All
I want tech to grow at an infinite rate because I think there are infinite amounts of opportunity, but I want every group to be equally able to grow. For too long, tech has looked largely the same as an industry: White, college educated, and urban. The rural environment is just one place where tech can benefit everybody if we make the right choices. Part of me understands that there are so many people that will lose jobs due to advancements in technology—but if we can build a model that genuinely becomes an equal playing field for all people, we could make things better for all people.
As a representative of Eleven Fifty Academy, my top priority is to increase equal opportunities for people from all walks of life. And if our growing partnership with MyFarms and other community leaders in Jay County is any indication, there are a lot of great things just around the corner.