Amy Walters, NPR
Program analyst Luis Medina, left, and systems analyst Kristina Madison, both recent graduates of Southern Arkansas University, do "outsourcing" network services and Web design work for clients of Rural Sourcing.
Amy Walters, NPR
Pickup trucks are common in Magnolia, Ark., where storefront shops still line the town center.
In the last decade, an increasing number of American companies have been radically cutting costs by sending manufacturing and customer service jobs overseas, where labor costs can be dramatically lower. Some of those jobs were the mainstay of rural U.S. communities, where low rent and wages first attracted outsourcing work away from higher-priced cities.
Now there's an attempt to bring outsourcing jobs back to smaller cities and towns. NPR's Howard Berkes recently visited the Arkansas town of Magnolia — home to about 10,000 people, near the southwest corner of the state — where some say there aren't enough jobs in local timber, oil, farming and manufacturing industries to keep local kids at home.
"In a global marketplace, those commodities operate with ever thinner margins," says Mark Drabenstott of the Center for the Study of Rural America. "So the real challenge for most rural areas is (getting) from a commodity economy to a knowledge-driven economy."
Rural Sourcing is one company taking up the challenge, hiring high-skilled workers who otherwise would leave rural areas to find work in the city. Using the Internet and telephone lines, the firm links up "remote workers" with clients for a variety of high-tech jobs.
Luis Medina, a program analyst who does network services and Web design work for Rural Sourcing clients, is amazed that he found a job that matched his education and skills in Magnolia. "I know people that had to go to Dallas or Atlanta or the big cities to find jobs because that's where the demand is," he says.
There are a number of potential roadblocks to success, but Rural Sourcing's goal is to build a network of 2,500 hometown workers in 30 states. That won't fundamentally stop the "brain drain" in rural America, and it won't stop outsourcing to overseas firms. "But it may help some places adapt as local, national and global economies shift," Berkes says. "That's if the idea works."