Tech Jobs Taking on a Larger Role in Rural Montgomery County

Rural America is synonymous with agriculture, Main Street mom-and-pops and perhaps manufacturing. While Montgomery County shows that those sectors can still thrive, it’s an old mold.

Tech jobs – those based in computers and engineering – have a presence worth noting, for young professionals in particular.

The breadth of technology is wide and largely statistically uncategorized, reaching into the obvious areas like computer science and lesser thought of sectors like manufacturing.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Urban Studies and Planning Professor Amy Glasmeier describes a tech job as anything that involves designing and producing in a collaborative environment. Think architects and engineers of all kinds and the people behind research and development.

These are needs of just about any enterprise, which explains why those kinds of professions are some of the most in-demand across the country. And urban centers are no longer the exclusive keepers of these coveted tech jobs.

The Tech Job Trend

Rural areas that traditionally attracted industry like Montgomery County are making a similar impact in a new era. While explosive growth isn’t imminent, the potential is there.

From big-time manufacturers like Beech-Nut to IT-focused firms like Giant Solutions and Mair Magaw, tech is happening. An ongoing trend could propel it upward in the coming years.

It’s called rural sourcing or “reshoring“, a new-ish term coined when corporations large and small began pulling outsourced or “offshored” jobs back from overseas. It’s a phenomenon fueled primarily by information technology, but includes implications for a variety of professionals.

There are a number of factors at play, but at the core is a need to be closer to the markets that companies serve. The massive offshoring of the past few decades that decimated a number of American industries occurred mostly in the interest of cheap labor.

But, rising wages in countries like China coupled with logistical concerns have placed a premium on locating closer to primary markets. Shipping costs are up and even threats of natural disasters have corporate decision makers reconsider factors that previously made offshoring a profitable concept. Even foreign enterprises see opportunities in setting up shop on U.S. soil.

Rural communities are built on some of the country’s most cost-effective soil, making more and more tech jobs available in places tied more closely to traditional manufacturing and the tradition of agriculture.

A History of Economic Progress in Rural America

“Rural America has always been the potential recipient of industry,” says Glasmeier, author of The High Tech Potential: Economic Development in Rural America.

Centuries ago, for instance, industrialists looking for skilled labor forces found farmers idled by winter to be an ideal human resource. That kicked off a relationship with manufacturing that peaked in the 1970s.

But, prosperity has dwindled since then and recent growth in rural manufacturing has been modest and mostly in the Midwest. Despite a lot of upside, tech has not made great strides either.

“[Rural sourcing] has been happening for 25 years, so I wouldn’t say it’s new,” Glasmeier says. “It’s a very small trickle.”

There’s never one factor for making that kind of move, says Glasmeier, who backed up thorough data analysis with interviews with top executives during the making of The High Tech Potential. Location decisions can even be influenced by the luck of one decision maker meeting another by chance.

However, there are a few factors that stand out.

“They are coming to places that have the right quality of person,” says Glasmeier. Our mobile society makes that easier to find even in rural locations.

Solid infrastructure and proximity to key markets weigh heavily as well. In Montgomery County’s case, clean water, reliable energy and a significant stretch of the New York State Thruway are all plus ones. The county and its business parks sit within a half day’s drive of more than half of the U.S. and Canadian populations.

So, the small amount of progress in the tech sector to date brings big opportunity for young professionals, both those equipped with four- and two-year degrees.

“I think our region is ripe for growth,” says Dustin Swanger, president of Fulton-Montgomery Community College. “We’ve got what’s going on in the Capital Region and Utica and we’re smack dab in the middle.”

That middle is a New York State Department of Labor statistical area known as the Mohawk Valley Region, which includes Montgomery County.

Where to Find the Tech Jobs

The nation’s hottest jobs are technology-related, according to online employment resource CareerBuilder. Recent Department of Labor data shows some those tech jobs are gradually becoming a larger part of the Mohawk Valley economy.

The Mohawk Valley is currently home to significant numbers of job titles you might not expect to find in rural areas, including software developers (420), network and computer systems administrators (330), computer systems analysts (330) and industrial engineers (100).

While there’s no official state or federal designation for tech jobs alone, two virtually tech-exclusive categories include some nice numbers. Some 2,750 computer- and math-related employees as well as about 1,580 architects and engineers are currently working in the Mohawk Valley.

“People don’t understand what modern manufacturing is,” Swanger says. “It’s very clean; very high-tech. It requires more specialized skills than it used to.

“It’s a different look than the manufacturing of the 1950s and ’60s,” he says, naming Montgomery County’s Beech-Nut and Kasson and Keller as a couple examples.

Amsterdam’s Beech-Nut, for instance, makes baby food. Fonda-based Kasson and Keller are responsible for EcoShield Window Systems.

As with many factories, assembly lines have been replaced by automation. Fulton-Montgomery Community College constructed a pipeline for these employers more than a decade ago, when it created the Developing a Curriculum, or DACUM, program.

Fueling the New-School Factory

DACUM pairs the college with the area’s top manufacturers to develop courses and career concentrations that produce the students these employers need. Every three to five years, an advisory committee assembles to determine where the local jobs are and what revisions or additions should be made to programs of study.

Fulton-Montgomery Community College has added an automation/mechatronics certificate as well as degrees in business, construction and electrical technology. Computer information systems, networking and science programs have also gained popularity along with a digital communications concentration.

“We certainly have focused on science and technology in recent years,” Swanger says. “We’re seeing more and more employers coming to our campus and recruiting students.”

And it’s not just the area’s largest entities.

“Smaller employers are going to play a larger role in the economy,” Swanger says.

Some 87 percent of Montgomery County’s 2,000-plus businesses across all industries employ 40 people or less, according to a recent study by North Star Destination Strategies. While not all of those employers offer tech-related positions, they all contribute to the changing rural landscape.

That setting not only has the jobs, but less competition for them than large metropolitan areas. Young professionals should also note a lower cost of living.

A Lower Cost of Living and Higher Quality of Life in Montgomery County

Sperling’s Best Places indicates the cost of living, which factors in food, housing, utilities, transportation and health care, is about 10 percent lower in Montgomery County than Albany – just 30 minutes away.

A $50,000 salary in Montgomery County is worth about $4,500 more than in Albany and housing is 39 percent cheaper, according to Sperling’s. Compare Montgomery County to a large urban center like New York City and you’ll find a 45 percent cost of living discount.

Montgomery County amenities like outdoor recreation fall right in line with a case study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The rural growth trifecta: outdoor amenities, creative class and entrepreneurial context” explains why the so-called “creative class” is attracted to and has helped rural areas grow in the modern era.

What’s Working in Montgomery County

So, even if tech is not an economic savior for rural America, it’s at least one better than so-so. Montgomery County has the tools – and the jobs – to make it worth a look no matter what stage of your career.

As for some of the other hottest jobs in America according the CareerBuilder? They’re also some of the strongest in the Mohawk Valley, registered nurses, health services managers and accountants among them.

Check out some of the listings and explore resources that help professionals get hired at the Montgomery County Works website and see if Montgomery County works for you.