Rural areas have lost workers in the last year, as the workforce in the nation’s nonmetropolitan counties shrank between October 2020 and October of this year, the most recent month for which county-level data is available.

Metropolitan counties, on the other hand, gained workers between October 2020 and 2021.

Workforce consists of all people working plus all those looking for work. In the last year, that number has declined by 220,000 in rural counties. The workforce in the rest of the nation has increased by nearly 1.3 million.

The latest county-level data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics tells a mixed story about employment in rural America. Rural counties as a whole continued to gain jobs in the last year. But they still don’t have as many jobs as they did before the beginning of the pandemic. (Rural counties have 520,000 fewer jobs compared to two years before.) But rural America’s job losses over this time period are proportionately the same as the nation as a whole.

Job gains in rural America, however, have slowed. In the year ending this October, the rate of job increase in rural counties was less than a fourth of the national average increase. Nationally, jobs increased by 3.2% in the last year. In rural America, however, jobs increased by just 0.7%. 

Only one out of 10 rural counties reported job gains that matched or exceeded the national average.

And, the rural workforce is declining. There are simply fewer people now in rural America available to work. In two-thirds of rural counties, there are fewer workers today than a year ago.

As always, the jobs picture changes from place to place. The map above shows the change in jobs from October 2020 to October 2021 in every county: 

  • Red counties are rural areas that lost jobs. Peachy-colored counties are rural areas that gained jobs, but at rates lower than the national average of 3.2%. Green counties are rural places that gained at or above the national average gain of 3.2%.
  • Gray areas are metro counties that had job gains below the national average or job losses. Black counties are urban areas that gained at or above the national average.
  • Click on a county and you will see all the local data.

You can see on the map how job growth is clustered in and around major cities, such as Austin, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver. Three-quarters of all job gains in the last year were in the nation’s largest cities. Their rate of job growth topped 4% in the last year.

The past year – a time spanning two presidential administrations – has been a jobs bust for most rural counties. Look at all the red on the map. Forty-four percent of all rural counties lost jobs in the last year and only 11% matched the national rate of increase of 3.2%.

What about the decline in workforce? Are working-age people leaving rural counties, retiring or just not looking for work? You can’t tell from this data. What you can see is that while urban areas have been building their workforce over the past year, rural counties have been losing their supply of potential workers.

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