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How to Bring The Future Faster For Rural Education and Economic Development


How to Bring The Future Faster For Rural Education and Economic Development

Interview with Thomas P. , Thomas P. Miller & Associates Miller

What lessons did you learn from COVID-19 that TPMA and all companies should take with them and implement for the future even after we overcome the pandemic?

I think the reality is that the pandemic will be with us for a while, so we still have to be adjusting and making adaptations along the way. One thing that has been a lesson learned by all of us was that we all knew that online learning and virtual work would be happening in the near future, but one of the aspects of the pandemic which people overlooked is the fact that it brought the future faster to us. K-12 schools and higher education institutions have all had to adapt to e-Learning. That adaptation has caused parents or caregivers to also adapt.

In rural areas, the pandemic has also heightened attention on issues like broadband. In the past when we talked about broadband, all of us had sympathy for remote and rural locations. Now, however, we’re all impacted because of the heavy demand and reliance on it. When you’ve got five to six people in a house and some are trying to learn while others are trying to do work, the issue of broadband and digital connectivity becomes even more important than we previously considered!

The pandemic has also highlighted the different ways in which we are able to communicate. We used to rely on physical meetings to understand what was happening both, workwise and socially. Since we are now virtual, we’ve all had to sharpen our precision in communication.

From both a workforce and economic development standpoint, we’re really finding that adaptability equals survivability. For companies, and even employees who are able to adapt to the environment around them, I think that they’re not only going to continue finding success during the pandemic, but they will be more successful after it as well. It’s proving to be true more and more every day, especially as we’re looking at going into a second wave.

Do you have any tips for how to develop and cultivate relationships in an increasingly virtual marketplace?

One of the things that I’ve always thought was underappreciated in communication, and I think it’s been heightened in the environment which we find ourselves in now, is listening. Being able to listen in an active, intent way – Not just patiently listening until someone’s finished talking. I think listening in an active way is a skill that’s possible to hone and really develop in this kind of environment.

The other thing that we see is the human nature of this pandemic; that to some degree, there has been certain democratization to it, in the sense that we’re all vulnerable. So, it’s opened up channels and access to thought leaders and other leaders that previously we didn’t have. It’s also going to put additional stress and strain on certain systems, like higher education.

We’ve occasionally talked or written about the agricultural model that we all adopted on learning 140 years ago and that’s clearly an aspect of education that is front and center now. People feel much more comfortable accessing learning in an online way. I think we’re going to see a growth in competency-based learning, which is mastering specific competencies and moving at your own pace. I think that will be accelerated in the workforce world.

As far as the communications environment, I feel like the pandemic has really made the communications environment more casual. We’re seeing into people’s living rooms and their kitchens, with the husbands, wives, and kids running around. It’s just a much more personal environment.

So, I think the pandemic has cut down on some of the business aspects of relationships. It’s opening the door to a lot more comfortable interactions and a lot more personal one on one interactions than what we saw previously, even when we were face to face.

What strategies can teams use to find opportunity zones and foster economic development through crises such as recessions and pandemics?

There remains a lot of work to be done in opportunity zones.

At its core, an opportunity zone really involves a city or community or region, evaluating their own assets and presenting them via a prospectus so that it accentuates those assets and entices investment into the zone and via strategies that the prospectus lays out.

Strategies, in terms of needs that those communities have and the opportunity to develop them.

I think the intensity and uncertainty of the pandemic has been a distraction; it’s been tough for people to do the type of work to optimize their zones.

There’s been some recent news out that home prices in opportunity zones are rising at a slower pace than areas outside of opportunity zones, for example. One of the key things that I think communities are starting to realize is that these opportunity zones aren’t going to develop themselves. In order to do that, many of them have to get a better handle on the demographics, the businesses, what the housing environment is like, the whole nine yards!

Stakeholders need to take stock of what’s in the opportunity zones and come up with a strategy and implementation plan for success, because it’s not going to happen on its own. One of the things we are seeing in this COVID-19 environment is a real emergence of diversity, equity, and inclusion being focal points as to how those zones are developed. Gone are the days, I think, of when people just kind of accepted gentrification and said, “this is the way to go.”

I think people are really trying to look for ways to find inclusive, equitable development in these zones. A lot of communities are reaching out to firms like ours looking for help in doing that.

Where do you see Thomas P. Miller & Associates (TPMA) in the next five years?

We’ve survived the pandemic for eight months so far, knock on wood! After 31 years of operating in a non-pandemic environment, we will continue to live at the intersection of education, workforce, and community development. There’s no shortage of work to be done, and frankly, there’s no shortage of opportunities for individuals and businesses to succeed.

We will continue to look at the future and figure out how we can help individuals, communities, and in some cases whole states, position themselves not for the economy of the future, but the economy of now. That is going to mean more of a focus on skills, not just traditional degrees. It’s going to accentuate lifelong learning in all its various facets. I think TPMA has a vibrant future ahead of it.

It’s all about talent. As we continue to help others, we’ve got to help ourselves and be able to retain and recruit the best talent that has the ‘innovation DNA’ to live on the edge.

We know that right now, as in any moment of disaster or recovery, people are going to be looking out for firms like ours, for that “North Star.” So we work really hard to try and stay ahead of that curve and be innovative while also making sure our work is actionable now and not only actionable in the future.

It’s a holistic approach to recovery where we’re guiding clients through, both for now and in the future.