Is it possible to develop a satisfactory professional career in a rural environment? Judging by appearances, yes, but for this it is necessary to address a whole series of challenges that make this a reality that is not only possible but fully attractive. Today there is a contradictory fact: many rural companies have difficulties to fill specialized positions, but a large part of the young people who go to the cities to study do not return for fear of not finding positions that fit with their training. “Most of the young people who leave rural areas do not return, because they believe that there are no opportunities for them. But, in fact, what happens is the opposite: many rural companies do not find the professional talent they need. And we are not just talking about jobs in agriculture and tourism, but in very diverse fields such as engineering, health, marketing, assistance, social and cultural revitalization…”, explains Mireia Font, manager of the GAL Alt Urgell-Cerdanya Consortium, one of the 284 local action groups working in Spain under the program leader of the European Union, which promotes the economic and social development of rural areas.
A contradiction that has one of its causes in training: “There is a great disharmony between the training needs of the productive fabric and the offer of regulated education,” says María José Mulero, coordinator of cooperation projects of the Collective for Rural Development Tierra of Campos, in Valladolid. “For example, here, in our territory, the institutes and training cycles give a lot of Administration. And that’s fine, but we have a lot of administrative staff and we lack training in electricians or mechanics, which are needed. We even have job offers in electricity that we cannot cover in the employment exchanges… It is necessary to go to the big cities and talk to the educational centers so that they are aware of the opportunities in rural areas”.
The migratory exodus is evidence that has lasted decades: between 1975 and 2021, the Spanish population increased by 38% (from 34 to 47 million inhabitants), but 17 provinces lost population (the most, Zamora, with 31% less ), and those that grew did so by concentrating their population in large urban centers and neighboring areas. To the point that 80% of the Spanish population is concentrated in urban areas that represent barely 15% of the territory, while the other 20% is spread over the remaining 85%. Spain is the fourth country in the European Union, after Estonia, Finland and Latvia, with more municipalities at risk of depopulation (3,400, 42.4% of the total). And the numbers continue: half of the 3.3 million companies in Spain are concentrated in just six provinces: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Malaga and Seville.
Reversing this trend requires, the experts point out, action on multiple fronts such as housing, access to basic services and, above all, employment and support for entrepreneurship; a task in which the Local Action Groups, of which there are more than 2,800 throughout the EU, take center stage. But it is also an effort in which universities, due to their educational role, already play a fundamental role thanks to paid internship projects such as Odisseu, promoted by the Generalitat de Catalunya and in which the UOC participates: since 2016, 391 rural companies and more than 400 undergraduate and master’s students have benefited, generating fifty stable employment contracts, training activities networking and crowdfunding initiatives to support entrepreneurship projects.
“Odisseu takes advantage of the window of opportunity that educational programs with incorporated compulsory internships give us, so that they can be carried out in rural areas,” says Angels Fitó, UOC Vice-Rector for Employability and Competitiveness. “And these practices, in turn, help to solve some of the gaps that rural areas have to develop their activity, with very small municipalities that perhaps need experts in law, technology, engineering, telemedicine or cultural facilitators. ”.
This is not the only initiative of these characteristics: in 2022, for example, the Rural Campus program has started, promoted by the ministries of Universities and Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, with the support of CRUE Universidades Españolas. More than 350 students from 37 public universities participated in this edition, a figure that Joan Subirats, Minister of Universities, has announced will be increased to 1,000 students in the 2023 call. immersive academic courses of between three and five months in rural environments or those at risk of depopulation, thus favoring their economic growth. In addition to their work (for which they receive a salary of 1,000 euros gross per month), the participating students must reside in their places of destination, and thus be able to know in depth and understand the social reality of those environments, “live and collaborate with their people, and they can see them as a place of opportunities for their professional development”, they explain from CRUE. During their development, the participants have both an academic tutor (from the university) and an internship (from the entity that receives the student).
A context of opportunities
Developing a professional career in rural areas depends, to a large extent, on public policies that facilitate it, says Fitó. “The first thing we need is coverage: we need digital access from anywhere in the territory; and then, at the individual level, another series of skills, such as learning throughout life”. Access to technology is providing new opportunities for people to work from anywhere, and has even become almost a prerequisite for attracting talent.
“Now we have a clear situation of opportunity, because, first, there is a growing interest, at a social, political and media level, for everything that is empty Spain; second, due to the acceleration of digitization processes due to the pandemic; by the increasingly numerous presence of organizations that are aware and that are collaborative and proactive in the face of this challenge; and finally, due to the presence of aid funds both at a European level and those of Next Generation [y Leader] and others at the national, regional and local level”. A context of opportunity in which, he maintains, the backbone work of the university is fundamental, both from the point of view of training (developing the necessary capacities), and promoting research and the generation of knowledge in rural areas.
The +Empresas, +Empleo, +Rural project, promoted in Castilla y León by the Tierra de Campos Rural Development Collective, together with 11 other local action groups, has the objective of promoting the sustainable development of rural areas through technological innovation, support for the business fabric and job creation, and is aimed at both people (unemployed or looking for an improvement) and the business fabric (from new initiatives to others that already exist and who want to diversify their businesses. The opportunities According to Mulero, they are there, according to a recent study carried out in collaboration with the University of Valladolid: “There is great economic dynamism and a growing job market, mainly in the agri-food industry, green energy and tourism services; and there is a high level of entrepreneurship, mainly linked to women, and a business community that has a great affective relationship with the territory,” he says. .
But if the opportunities are there, what are the problems? “The labor market, by itself, is not enough to solve the problems of maintaining this rural population. There has to be a much broader social context if we want to attract young people; and for that it is necessary to guarantee that there are attractive services. It is not that each municipality has all kinds of cultural or tourist services, but they do have to be related and, above all, that there are good communications so that they can move around”, asserts Mulero. But if transportation is a big problem, connectivity or housing are even bigger. In many rural areas, connectivity continues to be non-existent or quite deficient, and there is not enough housing available, “and what is available is very expensive, because it is in tourist areas, or it is not in a condition to rent or sell, as it comes from inheritances in those that have been allowed to deteriorate”.
The +Empresas, +Employment, +Rural initiative currently manages some 90 job offers, and in the 20 months that the platform has been running, they have managed 1,153 job offers, in addition to 178 business resources that range from businesses in transfer to trades shoemaker, plumber or electricians. “We really need that human capital that comes to rural areas, because there are many opportunities and even some that today cannot be covered.” From the collective they also carry out a personalized job orientation in which they train people to carry out an active job search, as well as training in digitization for companies, among other initiatives.
And the solutions? For Mulero, the actions have to cover different areas, starting with the improvement of connectivity, but going much further: “You have to introduce, for example, the concept of social profitability, not just economic. As an association, we care for children from zero to three years old where a nursery is not economically viable. But small companies must also be encouraged and supported at the regional level: the digital kit, for example, is now in the third phase of subsidies for companies with less than 10 workers, but they have the requirement of invoicing at least two million euros to access aid, and these criteria are impossible for companies in rural areas. So in the end the aid always goes to the big cities”. Mulero also points out the need to promote the real capacity of the municipalities to encourage housing rental or sale exchanges; or the introduction of subsidized taxation for companies or residents who provide a permanent residence”.
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