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Beyond the Farm: Rural Industry Workers in America

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Rural America faces unique challenges and opportunities compared with urban America. However, the contributions of rural communities go far beyond the farm. The rural economy has diversified substantially since the mid-20th Century. Jobs in the agricultural sector are on the decline while jobs in manufacturing, retail sales and educational services are on the rise.

Rural is often a catch phrase denoting everything that is not urban or metropolitan. This blog focuses specifically on the 704 counties in which 100.0 percent of the population lives in a rural area (referred to as “rural counties” in this analysis). For more information about how the U.S. Census Bureau defines urban and rural geographies, see Defining Rural at the U.S. Census Bureau.

The newly released Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey 5-year statistics show that rural counties vary widely among themselves and across regions as demonstrated by industry statistics.

Figure 1 shows the economy in rural counties is diverse and not necessarily dependent on farming or manufacturing. In fact, the largest segment of the civilian workforce in rural counties (22.3 percent) is employed in the education services, and health care and social assistance industry. This industry is mainly made up of schools, hospitals, home health care services and similar employers. It is in this industry where you find our elementary and middle school teachers and registered nurses. Another 10.9 percent of the workforce in rural counties is employed in the retail trade industry. A smaller share of the workforce is employed in the finance, wholesale trade and information industries combined.

While no longer the top industries in these areas, resource-based activities such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining still employ one out of 10 workers in rural counties. A somewhat higher share of rural employment in is in manufacturing. In fact, 12.1 percent of the rural civilian workforce is in this industry, performing duties as assemblers and fabricators, production workers and managers.

Employment by industry also varies in size and by region. Landscape, access to natural resources and availability of labor may shape the geography of rural industries and employment. Manufacturing is less prominent in rural counties in the West compared with rural counties in the Midwest, South and Northeast. In contrast, a larger percentage of the civilian workforce in rural counties in the Midwest and West is employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining industry compared with those in the Northeast and the South.

Employment in the educational service, health care and social assistance industry is more evenly distributed across rural counties. In more than half of the 704 rural counties, 22.3 percent or more of the civilian workforce works in this industry. Unlike other industries, employment in this industry is not dependent on access to natural resources, but may be more dependent on changing demographics. Nationwide, increases in school enrollment and an aging population are driving up the demand for educators and health care practitioners in rural and urban areas alike.

As the economy continues to change in the face of changing demographics and advances in technology, efforts to understand the impact on the rural economy and its workers requires reliable data. The American Community Survey is an ideal data source because it provides detailed statistics for areas with small populations. The information collected from American households sampled in the nationwide survey provides researchers and policy makers the tools needed to understand the opportunities and challenges facing rural communities from the Great Plains to the Mississippi Delta and beyond.

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