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Rurality: the forgotten attribute in your equity, diversity and inclusion agenda

In the mission to ensure fairness in access to employment, there are many worthy conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion. However, one attribute that is rarely discussed is that of rurality.

Broadly speaking, this attribute may be given attention under the label of social mobility, which talks about having equal opportunity to move to an improved economic status.

As a starting point, the challenges of social mobility can be grounded in a literal mobility issue because those living and working in rural areas can be cut off from the infrastructure needed to attain a viable career.

When I first moved to Wales, I worked remotely for a global life sciences consultancy and I hired a desk in The Life Sciences Hub in Cardiff Bay where there was a convergence of industry, research and health systems, and commercial health innovation was thriving. I also worked for Swansea University, teaching health economics to healthcare professionals and began to tap into the health innovation work streams flowing from that institution. A common conversation during conferences was the industry skills gap and the struggle to hire people to keep up with growth.

Yet, not far away in the ex-mining towns of the South Wales valleys, where I lived, there is a high level of NEET school leavers (Not in Education Employment or Training), who, it seemed, were unaware of the jobs that are, ostensibly, a commutable distance away from them.

Cardiff is just an hour’s drive away and Swansea on 30 minutes by car, yet for many rural school leavers these centres might as well be at the end of the earth. We know that young people are not learning to drive or obtaining cars as they have done in the past. While Covid-19 undoubtedly exacerbated this, even before that research showed that driving is now viewed as more of an unattainable luxury. The alternative, one would think, is public transport. However, while Ammanford has a train station, at the time of writing one cannot get to Cardiff from Ammanford by train for a 9-5 job. Somewhat laughably, the travel search engine suggests you must leave the night before to get there before 9. Nor can you make up the time by leaving later than 5pm if you want to get home on the same day. Not to mention the expense, with the train fare to Cardiff costing 26 pounds per day – quite an expense for an entry-level person.

There is often an assumption that in the post-Covid era, with so many people working remotely, the problem of mobility is solved. But for entry-level people this is not necessarily true. They might not have an ideal home office set up. Furthermore, learning on the job -- from the basics of workplace conduct to communication skills -- really requires that in-person contact. Logistically, dealing with questions remotely can be daunting for an entry level person, who would have to set up a virtual meeting with their manager to have their questions addressed. These can go unanswered and contribute to well-being and skill development issues, which are harder to monitor and resolve remotely.

How exactly can one address this issue?

When I set up Gatehouse ICS, which is now a consultancy providing market research insights and connections to emerging health innovation and established life science companies, my first employee was a chemistry masters graduate who was struggling in her career search. Ironically, her university was based in Cardiff, yet she had no coaching or line of sight to the career opportunities in the life sciences. I employed her when I was a freelancer, which set in place a chain of events that led to me taking on entry level people while balancing that with employing experienced people to create a blended team to support our pharmaceutical and healthcare clients. Thus a consultancy was born.

While our more senior staff could justifiably be working from home in a very flexible way, they have committed to being in the office as often as possible in order to work side-by-side with entry level people.

We weight our entry level recruitment toward local young people, offering new opportunities each year in the form of internships and entry level roles. However, there are obviously many more for whom rurality remains a barrier. There might be ways Life Science companies can support those individuals to break down the rural unemployment versus skills gap in the innovation hubs such as Swansea and Cardiff.

One possibility is for city based organisations to have a compressed working week, where new employees could work, for example, three ten-hour days to reduce the travel burden. Perhaps companies could consider offering travel subsidies to interns or overnight accommodation for those struggling to get to and from rural areas. Another suggestion might be to look for a rural consultancy, such as ours, and rent a desk for interns and other young employees, giving those employees an industry-specific working environment and communication with others in their field, while retaining a remote working facility. Perhaps seasoned rurally based professionals could hot desk or station themselves in small rural towns and have entry level people work alongside them for part of the week. To address the challenge of rurally based young people not pursuing graduate career paths, employers could consider apprenticeship degrees where a degree is funded alongside a job role.

If a company cannot make these concessions for rurally based entry level employees, it might consider relaxing contracting obligations with rural consultancies like ours who help to achieve their E,D and I objectives. Ultimately, we aspire to be a conduit rather than a bottleneck to our local entry-level employees and envision transforming from a consultancy to a rural talent incubator for the industry. The business model for that is a work in progress, but could include sponsoring an internship place, hosting work placements and interviewing from our rural cohort at the end of an internship period.

There are no simple solutions to the mobility issues inherent in rurality challenges, but if we are to address the current and widening divide between rural versus urban based school leavers cross industry, collaboration is key. A first step might be to start with those who have a focus, interest and reach into areas of rurality. To that end, I would invite anyone for whom this resonates to connect with me and discuss further opportunities to advance this cause.