USU Extension focuses on strengthening Utah’s rural economies

As many rural Utah residents are struggling with unemployment or underemployment, a new pilot program has been implemented by Utah State University Extension to help residents in the southern counties develop the skills needed to compete for remote employment.

With the goal of strengthening the economies of rural Utah, the new Rural Online Initiative (ROI) was funded by the legislature in 2018 to allow people to develop skills so they can seek competitive remote jobs without leaving their counties.

The initiative is the brainchild of Darin Bushman, county commissioner in Piute County, who was elected to office in one of the smallest, most poverty-stricken counties in Utah. As he evaluated economic strengths and weaknesses, he discovered that while there were very talented people in the county, many were underemployed, unemployed, had dropped out of the workforce or were geographically bound because a spouse was employed in the county, but there were no employment options for the other potential wage earner.

“I sat in my office posting a freelance job offer, and it hit me – why can’t our citizens, with skills to offer, be the ones doing this job rather than someone halfway around the world?” he said. “Our local people can be the ones taking advantage of these online opportunities and marketing their skills outside the bounds of their current geography.”

Bushman said the idea was presented to local chamber members and other elected officials with positive response. However, finding the right organization to be the “home” for the program was a challenge. With input from another commissioner, it seemed that USU Extension would be the perfect fit because of their county outreach programs.

“After meeting with USU Extension Vice President Ken White and discussing our concerns and ideas, the ROI was born,” he said. “The premise was simple – educate, coach, mentor and teach rural businesses and members of the workforce so they can take advantage of online opportunities. We also wanted to target high school students nearing graduation who were not pursuing higher education to avail them of the opportunities that exist online, which could help reduce the net migration from rural Utah counties.”

The Rural Online Initiative, House Bill 327, was sponsored by Representative Michael Noel, with Senator David Hinkins as the floor sponsor. Bushman and Commissioner Victor Iverson from Washington County successfully lobbied for it. It was signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert during the 2018 legislative session.

White said USU Extension is in a prime position to leverage its presence in rural Utah to help residents become better equipped to work as remote employees.

“Our extensive statewide infrastructure will help connect rural Utahns with the new and innovative employment opportunities that are available worldwide,” he said. “We see this as a way for citizens to keep the high quality of life found in these rural communities, but now they can have increased earning potential.”

According to Paul Hill, USU Extension associate professor and principal investigator of the Rural Online Initiative, a new certificate course has been specifically developed to help people succeed as an online freelancer or remote employee.

“Completing the Master Remote Work Professional course and earning a certificate will prepare people to prosper in the new economy,” he said. “After meeting the skill requirements and earning their certificates, ROI clients will be assisted with job placement in partnership with Utah’s Department of Workforce Services.”

Linda Gillmor, director of Rural Development for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development said that one of the state’s strategies to create jobs as part of the Governor’s ‘25K Rural Jobs in 25 Counties by 2020’ initiative is to leverage existing broadband.

“In some instances, rural locations have faster speeds than along the Wasatch Front,” she said. “The Rural Online Initiative pilot program is an excellent way to use that infrastructure to create jobs in rural Utah.”

White said USU Extension has recently hired a senior program coordinator, three program coordinators and one staff assistant to carry out the new program. Each program coordinator has been assigned several counties to oversee, and the team is now in place and ready to serve these communities.

The Rural Online Initiative team includes Russell Goodrich, senior program coordinator based in Carbon County. He will work with the other program coordinators based in Emery, Sevier and Garfield counties to implement the initiative throughout rural Utah. Mike Sarles, program coordinator based in Garfield County, will oversee Garfield, Kane, Washington, Piute and Iron counties. Jordan Leonard, program coordinator based in Emery County, will oversee Emery, Carbon, San Juan, Grand, Uintah and Daggett counties. Trenton Willson, program coordinator based in Sevier County will oversee Wayne, Sevier, Sanpete and Beaver counties. Emy Swadley is the new assistant for the initiative.

The Rural Online Initiative will host town hall meetings to attract community support and clients. Some counties will have workshops, meetings and resources available this fall, while other counties will start in 2019.

To sign up for an upcoming town hall meeting, to join a remote work cohort or sign up to receive emails and learn of the latest news and opportunities, visit

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