In 2009, Perry County faced a bleak future. The Tennessee county had the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation at 27 percent, and even the jobs that were available didn’t offer much in the long term. Factories had slowly but steadily abandoned Perry County, leaving in their wake low-wage jobs as the sole employment option.
Michael Dumont, an area businessman, realized that something had to be done.
"One in four people were out of work and when there was a job opportunity available, the demand for it was high," he explained. "We were facing worse unemployment numbers than during the Great Depression, when unemployment was only 25 percent."
A New Economic Focus: Online Work
A community development group, VisionPerry, was formed to begin addressing some of the county’s employment problems. Unfortunately, recruiting more manufacturing plants wasn’t a possibility; the lack of multi-lane highways in the county was considered a big drawback. As the task force pursued other options, it didn’t take long for them to see the potential in online work.
They decided to take part in a pilot project that focused on training rural residents in the skills needed for online job opportunities. In a press release for the new initiative, Dumont—who became director of VisionPerry—noted that when first approached with the concept, they "immediately saw the opportunity to shift the community from a manufacturing mindset to a knowledge and services-based economy mindset."
But it wasn’t just about training. VisionPerry also wanted to be able to provide actual jobs for the program graduates.
They began to aggressively pursue online work partnerships and discovered that many companies were excited to work with them. "We got some leads on various companies and started sitting down with them to talk about the situation. There was an emotional draw because of our high unemployment and our people that were in need," Dumont said, noting that companies wanted to help.
The county initiative was able to take advantage of federal funding, and established a training facility in the county seat of Linden, Tennessee. Because the county’s workforce had previously relied heavily on factory manufacturing work, the VisionPerry task force decided to take that expertise and transfer it to the world of online work.
"We coined the word ‘digital factory’ to show that we would have different opportunities, like “factory lines” within the work center," Dumont explained. "It wouldn’t just be a call center or just a programming shop or just a web content management place. It would be multiple lines of work within one facility."
In a matter of months, the first batch of program graduates had not only successfully completed the training, they’d also embarked on a whole new career—one in which the possibilities for advancement were no longer limited by the lack of four-lane highways.
Course Offerings Create Foundation For A Career
VisionPerry and its sister program, VisionGibson, provide two different training tracks. The course offerings include customer service, web design and programming. They’ve also used online microwork opportunities to provide short-term employment.
Ashlee Starkey is a customer service trainer at one of the area’s Digital Factories. She has seen firsthand the transformation that occurs as students progress through their training.
"The majority of people we have come in here have only flipped burgers or worked on an assembly line at a factory. We even have people...[who’ve] never turned on a computer before. They go from having almost no customer service skills and even no computer skills to being able to work on a computer daily and being able to handle customer service situations."
One such graduate was Ashley Brown. He previously worked as a farmhand, but had been struggling for three years to find steady work. After completing the programming training course at the Gibson County Digital Factory, his employment prospects changed dramatically. In an interview with the Tri-City Reporter, Brown said that going in, "I had no prior computer programming experience." Since his graduation, he says, “I don’t have a job; I actually have a career.”
Results? Placement Close To 100 Percent
Between the two Digital Factory locations, close to 300 people have been trained. Of that 300, the placement rate is close to 100 percent. "If they make it through our program, almost everyone gets hired afterwards," Dumont said.
As he looks towards the future, Dumont sees the success of the VisionPerry initiative expanding across the region. "We’ve got a good program and good corporate partners. And what’s happening now is that we’re being asked to help set these up in various communities throughout the region. This is bringing 21st-century jobs to rural communities that have been overlooked for many years."
How can online work training programs be expanded to other communities? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.