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Rural Workforce Training Program

The Rural Workforce Training Program enhances the lives families by providing lifestyle education to parents while they earn a livable wage.

Photo of Christina Schwanke
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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

Our idea has evolved since the first submission through collaboration. In the past few months we have sat down with county social services and community non-profits and talked through our idea. The exciting part is our partners are very excited about our project because it addresses a huge gap in services provided in rural communities! We have secured workspaces and computers for women leaving domestic violence, collaborated with counties for ‘welfare to work' programs and created a partnership to give those experiencing chronic homelessness a path out! We have been encouraged by reading IDEO submissions, especially the one that is helping women in Turkish prisons to gain skills, that our idea not only viable but welcomed. The IDEO toolkits have provided us the resources to articulate our idea clearly to partners and businesses. We have been able to create enthusiasm from people within urban and rural communities who have locked arms to help us succeed. We have been gifted logo and website design, startup consultation and grant writing help. People who have heard our idea are enthusiastically introducing us to their companies as a viable way to close the skills gap in a socially conscious manner. We have heard stories of children, families and pregnant mothers who desperately need economic opportunity to give their children a path for success. Evolution throughout this prize is a flame turning into fire and spreading....

Name or Organization



Rural Synergy Foundation is based in Reno, NV and will serve rural communities nationally.

What is your stage of development?

  • Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD


  • Non-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

The Rural Synergy Foundation Workforce Development Program is a game changer because it focuses in on whole family stability. Many programs only focus on one aspect of family support, job placement, training, education, mental and physical health or child development. Our program includes all these essentials for a family to holistically develop and thrive. It also fosters stability and capacity for parents to understand and develop their children’s early childhood experiences to be positive, developing and healthy. Thriving families equal maximized childhood potential.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

The Rural Synergy Foundation has partnered with local rural non-profits to create a workforce development program with the fundamental belief that an important factor in the early development of children is providing educational and financial resources for parents. Our partners include county social services and domestic violence transitional housing, they have communicated to us that workforce development is lacking,this creates a situation where their clients are not successfully completing programs because they have no skills or jobs to rely on when finished. We will connect rural parents with gainful employment, workforce training and lifestyle education that methodically will result in higher wages and healthier physical and mental lifestyles for families. While many programs have limited reach, strict eligibility and limited time participation; our program reaches directly into the homes of children and reaches a wider demographic including the often overlooked and underfunded middle and low-income working parents, like mothers leaving domestic violence situations with minimum wage skills. Parents that are able to participate in our training program, obtain soft skills, life skills and employment skills allowing them to support their children more effectively in a balanced stable home; with nutritional food, structured days and healthy engagement. During training we will offer extended financial support for quality child care.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Almost one quarter (23.5) of children in rural communities are living in poverty, we are on a mission to change that. ( Parents in rural communities experience a lack of access to jobs, education and financial resources, causing family and community instability. By bridging the gap between urban companies and rural communities sustainability for families and communities will become stronger.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The Workforce Training Program is being created to cultivate rural parent's basic and specialized work skills that align with the economies needs. While parents participate in the program they will also attend classes on life skills such as nutrition, child development, healthy relationships and financial competency. Phase 1 Plan A Tier 1 Program will be offered to low income families to develop low to medium trade skills (Data Analyst, Medical Coder, Etc.) This will be a 1 year on the job training program developing soft skills and hard skills. Participants Low-income parents of young children will be prioritized as participants for the program. Parents in the training program will be offered vouchers to early childhood development programs to ensure children get proper interaction and care during working hours. Skills Training All trainees will be trained and required to illustrate competency in a set of predetermined hard and soft skills. Training will be paid for by the foundation and successful completion will result in pay increases. Skills the foundation intends in cultivating in Phase 1 are as follows: · Hard Skills- Sequel and Basic Excel. · Soft Skills- Basic writing and grammar, time tracking, time management, basic computer skills. · Elective- Nutrition, child development, healthy relationships or basic personal finance. Wages All Rural Synergy Foundation trainees will be compensated an equal and fair hourly starting wage. As soon as a trainee is trained in the basic functions of the job they will receive a raise. They will continue to receive raises based on completion of hours and training. The Following is an example of the program pay scale: · Start- $15/Hr · 50 Hrs + Basic Job Training- $16/Hr. · 200 Hrs + Passed Sequel/time tracking training-$17/Hr. · 400 Hrs + Passed Basic Excel/ basic writing and grammar training- $18/Hr. · Etc. Lifestyle Training All participants will be required to participate in lifestyle education programs. These programs will be shaped to assist parents in maximizing their children’s potential in the beginning stages of life. We will focus on four pieces of educational training that current trends mark as detrimental to a child’s development: Healthy Relationships- According to ‘Children and youth who are exposed to domestic violence experience emotional, mental, and social damage that can affect their developmental growth.’ Giving parents the resources to understand healthy relationships and make wise choices for their families we give children the hope of not enduring the debilitating trauma of Domestic Violence.. Nutrition- It is becoming more understood the long lasting cognitive impact poor nutrition can have on a child. Many families suffer from food insecurity and have little understanding of the importance on proper nutrition for an all around healthy life. Our program will help eliminate food insecurity and educate parents on proper nutrition for themselves and their children. Child Development- Parents role in early childhood development is indisputably the most important. RSF will help parents understand the resources available for them and their children. We will train parents in activities to develop better language and motor skills as well as behavior management and problem solving (According to National Research Council & Institute of Medicine children who have mastered these in their earlier years are better positioned to succeed). Basic Personal Finance- Mismanaged finances can discourage growth and accomplishment while adding stress on families. As parents make more money they will receive financial literacy education. As a compliment to money management we will introduce parents to community resources that could enrich their family. Training will be offered in person and online by Rural Synergy Foundation staff and local nonprofits. The foundation will use a combination of foundation created instruction and pre-existing training programs to best help individuals. Trainees will have access to trainers to cultivate skills while working on appropriate projects. Paid contracts for work will be acquired from businesses by the Rural Synergy Foundation allowing us to create a sustainable source of funding. The funding stream mixed with private donations, grants and partnerships will create a diverse and high quality program. Successful participants will be given the opportunity to continue employment at the Rural Synergy Foundation which will create sustainability for the participant and our organization.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Parents, children and communities will all benefit from the RSF Workforce Development Program. The following are the ways each will benefit from our program: Parents- The benefit to parents will be educational, financial and relational. Parents will be empowered to refine life skills and gain work skills. Financially parents will be able to grow and be more equipped to provide for their families. Relationally parents will be prepared to interact with each other, their children and community resources. Children- Children will be the biggest beneficiaries in this program. The change will start at home while their parents start to grow. Their parents will understand good nutrition, healthy relationships and child development. Their parents will also have financial resources to implement what they are learning. Children will also benefit from sustainable communities. Sustainable communities have more resources for child development. Communities- The workforce development program would help create sustainability in rural communities. Our goal for sustainable communities is a higher per-capita wage, lower poverty rate, less domestic violence and higher levels of education which starts in the first three years of life! The benefits are so intertwined we believe this program will have a large ripple effect to people and agencies in several communities in California and Nevada.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

The short term impact of the Workforce Development Program would be creating a sustainable family dynamic that would empower parents to maximize their child’s potential. Long term we see huge strides in communities. Sustainability in families will translate into more resources and support for community early childhood development programs and education. This support in turn would lead to lower rates of poverty and higher education for the next generation.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

The workforce training program would impact low-income children in two fundamental ways. The first would be providing parents a feasible path to rise from low income to middle income earners while giving them the resources to empower their children to pursue their dreams and create an educationally and economically fulfilled life. The second impact for low income children is by creating community sustainability and reducing the number of low-income families within communities we build resources that can be utilized to provide more attention to the needs of remaining low-income children to enrich their future.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

While the idea of workforce development is not new, our research shows that creating an apprenticeship style program that can be completed remotely has not been implemented in the United States. We are combining proven methods of education and workforce development on the non-profit level to reach rural communities with a program that is mutually beneficial for the participants and the companies. Our workforce training program will allow parents who are unable or unwilling to relocate for personal development an opportunity to acquire skills and build a career.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Currently the Rural Synergy foundation is working to pilot our program with 2 communities in rural California. In today’s technology based world we believe that anywhere that has access to internet and people in need we can expand. As of August CNN reported that there were over 6 million jobs that are unfilled and many are remaining unfilled because of a skills gap. Imagine the effect of developing the skills of enough people to fill just one percent of those jobs, that’s 60,000 families changed. By partnering with nonprofits in several communities nationwide we can help their clients build skills that would improve the lives of families and communities all over the United States.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

The Rural Synergy Foundation has been working with industry counsel to develop the most feasible plan. Workforce Counsel- Technology, construction and aerospace leaders have guided us in developing a highly sustainable apprenticeship style program. It is cost competitive due to our non-profit status but provides resources to not only sustain but grow our vision. Community and Agency Counsel- We are committed to MOU’s with Wild Iris to serve their transitional housing program for victims of domestic violence. Our second MOU commitment is with IMACA to serve rural residents coming out of homelessness. We are also currently coordinating to with Inyo County Health and Human Services, Mono County Health and Human Services and the the Inyo County Superintendent of Schools. Our partnerships are shaping up to provide a significant amount of resources to best advance our program. There is a lot of excitement surrounding our program because as indicated by the USDA and experienced on the ground there is a HUGE need for workforce development programs serving rural households. Many of these households are in a gap that has limited resources or services to help them navigate positive development in themselves let alone the early stages of childhood development in their children.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

Business viability was an important factor when deciding to pursue a remote workforce development program. Since this program was designed to implement successful attributes of three different industries to better the lives of rural communities the following are the ways we believe their success will translate: 1. Apprenticeships- This method of skills development is used in wide variety of professions. A huge benefit to an apprenticeship is workers gain skill without falling into student loan debt, even better 91% of people who complete apprenticeships go on to find employment that pays at least $51,000 a year. This method of learning is underutilized but could provide huge benefits to rural communities. 2. Support Vendor/Contractor/Consultant- Most major companies contract out a huge portion of work in order to avoid hiring excess staff or to get specialized help. If you would like to see how many vendors can support a company take a look at this list: Just for reference this is just for Microsoft's Typography division. This industry has a ton of room for growth and illustrated below much of it will be remote. 3. Remote Labor- Since 2005 the number of non self-employed workers who work remotely has grown 115%. It is projected by 2020 that 50% of the workforce will work remotely. ( Working remotely is not just widely accepted but becoming the preferred method of working by employers and employees alike. By combining these three aspects of the current labor market we see an opportunity to support families and children in rural areas while offering high quality workers to companies in need.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

This concept stemmed from the personal experience of our director Christina Schwanke. In 2011 Christina and her husband James had a combined income of $36,000, even in the rural parts of California this is not enough to provide adequate housing or food. They uprooted and moved to North Dakota where James completed a Electric Lineman Apprenticeship. Meanwhile Christina was trained by a small contractor called Mountain Plains LLC to design power lines. She was able to learn a skill, make a livable wage and work remotely while her husband travelled for his apprenticeship. While working for Mountain Plains Christina had several coworkers with families that had come from poverty. The opportunity to learn a skill without incurring student loans gave these individual a way to improve their lives with little risk. Their children were able to not only obtain a high quality education but participated in extracurricular activities that would have been unaffordable otherwise. James finished his apprenticeship in 2015 and was hired with a utility in Nevada. Due to their experience with apprenticeship and remote work Christina and James are now able to provide essentials and extras for their two year old Mika. Mika has enjoyed one on one interaction learning through play and reading plus taking gymnastics. The workforce training program is a way to help others enjoy the same success for their families. The Rural Synergy Foundation knew that James and Christina's story was not unique but wanted to get the input of people working with the rural communities most vulnerable to find out needs and barriers. We have sat down with several advocates who work with homeless, victims of domestic violence, teen moms and the disabled. Everyone is in agreement that there is huge need for our program. Each advocate had ideas of barriers but in our meetings we have not only agreed to solve them together but began the process of determining paths of success for different circumstances. One example of this is Wild Iris, a non-profit that serves victims of domestic violence. They indicated that most of their victims would not be ready for a workforce development program because of their current situation or level of trauma. However their transitional housing program caters to victims who have already undergone counseling and are ready to move forward with their lives. Many of these women enter the program with small children and unreliable transportation. Wild Iris decided to provide and onsite workspace, computers and advocacy for childcare so the women in their program could participate in the workforce program with as few barriers as possible. The above are just a few examples of many of how are program has used a human centered design.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

The Rural Synergy Foundation is the Vision of three directors originally from Surprise Valley, California; a valley comprised of less than 800 people. The heart of the Foundation is to help rural areas thrive in their own unique ways without compromising the values, culture and heart of each community. Each director has a different experience that has led to the creation of the Rural Synergy Foundation. Rural Synergy’s Vision is to enhance the lives of children, families and individuals of rural communities by providing resources (financial, training and development tools) that eliminate barriers to success and create sustainable infrastructures for rural organizations (businesses, nonprofits, education, healthcare, etc…) The foundation focuses on creating sustainability in rural communities holistically through Workforce Development (job training and job creation). The Workforce Development human centered approach results in adults and children’s access to education, healthcare and stable family units. Workforce Development- The workforce program is also the driver in maintaining education systems in place by allowing families to stay in rural areas; through providing adequate employment we keep numbers of students at a point of viability. 1) Access to Education- Employment for families creates access to knowledge and education for all individuals of the family; including; Early Childhood, K-12, Post High school- College, Career-Tech and Financial Education. 2 )Access to Health and Wellness - Rural communities experience drastic difficulty with access to specialized health care; particularly for young children and elderly. Jobs with health benefits allow families to have consistant access to healthcare and promotes healthy body growth and learning. 3) Stable Family Units- Stability is created by steady employment, growth mindset and supportive systems that allow a family to experience minimal stressors. Less stressors allows for positive child-adult relationships to form, a sense of safety, and future dreams to be explored. We plan to scale our model through a Systems Building and Collaboration approach once we have success in our pilot communities. Our System’s Building Approach includes Nationally Supporting the sustainability of rural communities through a collaborative process between elements of rural communities (Workforce, Education and Health). By bringing together these elements in a cohort model, collaboration and coordination of services will begin to be strengthened. The idea is to have 5-10 Communities participate in a year long Cohort of identifying common goals, sharing ideas and challenges, leadership development and collaboration to enhance the community's success. The Rural Synergy Foundation is a foundation built on a lifetime of experience and passion of each of its directors.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

Yes! We are in the process of writing MOU’s and Letters of Interest with our pilot counties and non-profits within the communities. We also have an open line of communication with several corporations who are helping guide us to secure work contracts. Internally our directors are well equipped to coordinate this program. Heather Tufts is experienced in Early Childhood Development, Christina Schwanke has extensive experience in corporate training and consulting; and David Goodwin is a successful rural businessman dedicated to partnerships and economic sustainability.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We have experienced incredible progress since our initial submission of this application. The excitement surrounding our project within rural and urban communities is intoxicating. It has made us realize that the expertise that would be most helpful is how to effectively plan for growth. We anticipate covering an expansive geographic area while training and employing several participants. We would welcome advice on organization staffing and cost effective technology.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

Mentoring support from an individual who understands corporations and can help us navigate red tape would be our foundations most pressing need at this point in time.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

We did not change any concepts of our idea. She helped us work out how to better articulate our vision. We are excited because she works in public health in rural communities and we feel that she will be a valuable resource when we move forward on some of our bigger vision.

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).


Join the conversation:

Photo of Candace Radoski

Workforce development and connecting residents with opportunity can be so powerful in rural communities. I see that there are voucher and subsidy options available during work hours. Are child care considerations part of the training period as well?

Photo of Christina Schwanke

Hi Candace!

Thank you for your insight and question regarding if there are child care considerations as part of the training. Currently our goal is to create sustainability for communities that means we want to create stimulate and not compete. Therefore, our organization is looking to provide the voucher or funding for quality child care for the individuals that are participating in training. At this time our model is to partner with the child care options in communities we are working with to support them, rather create new and competing child care options. We look at partnerships and collaboration before creating new resources or services.