Take advantage. Leave your small town.

Does your community talk about the flight of youth?

The shrinkage and simultaneous aging of communities is a critical issue for rural places.

Young people graduate and move away for good jobs or for college and they may not come back for a decade or more, if at all.

Recently, a high-achieving, hard-working college student told a just-laid-off friend to take advantage of the layoff and use it as an opportunity to leave our rural community. No question – job loss is a great time to take advantage of opportunities that might’ve been out of reach because you had a full time job – but it’s still disconcerting to hear one of the smartest, hardest working college kids I know advising a friend to “get out of Dodge“.

It illustrates how much is left to accomplish in order to strengthen the relationship between communities, employers, schools, colleges and the youth that local people say they want to retain in (or attract back to) their communities.

It’s not a simple thing to fix. Is it something that can/should be “fixed”? Or is it simply a reflection of market forces that rural communities must recognize and address?

Addressing the gap

Programs to bridge the gap between where youth are and where employers need them aren’t just about the job, but that’s usually the focus.

You’ll find internships, vocational-technical education (which changes the person, not the job or the employer) and many other programs that try to get younger workers to develop a passion for something that will enable them to earn more than what’s available via traditional service sector jobs.

High school graduates who have college aspirations sometimes don’t go right out of high school because they just aren’t sure what they want to do. Internships are one way to offer a look-see at different careers. Employers and colleges of all kinds could do more to offer a look-see of their own.

But it isn’t easy.

Challenges at every turn

Many high school students care pressed for time given that they’re in school from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm or longer, with before and after school activities like “zero period classes”, sports, work, band, etc.

While some think that this younger generation is afraid of work, I think those who claim that are simply more aware of the less-motivated than they were in the past. It’s repeatedly been shown that most rural youth have a strong work ethic because of responsibilities they had while being raised.

Despite a good work ethic, someone still has to manage/mentor an intern. Who does it? When does it happen?

Most employees will expect to be paid for giving up weekend/evening/family time and management may not have the funds for that. College students and high school graduates with jobs might have time for internships during the mentoring business’s “normal” work day, but this still requires employee time for mentoring/training.

In order to work past these challenges, motivation might come from looking at the outcome of succeeding at these programs. Imagine your community with a substantial, community-involved 18-35 year old workforce. What community wouldn’t like that?

Figuring out how to get there won’t be an accidental process, but this visualization could provide the motivation to plan how your community will make it happen.

Making it happen

Some rural communities, including mine, have been growing lately, but the influx is primarily “empty nesters” rather than 18-35 year olds and young families. Research has repeatedly shown that communities must have more to offer than “just jobs” to attract the latter.

Culture, recreation and work flexibility, aka “powder days”, are growing in importance, even while school quality, cost of living and more traditional requirements remain critical.

Culture is more than just art, music and theater. It’s vision too. An attractive community will likely be moving toward achieving a vision (whatever that might be) that’s intertwined with the causes and values attractive/important to a young workforce/young families. Quite often, these will be the things they learned to value while growing up in your town.

What does your community do to attract young workers and young families? What should they do? If these things work, is your community ready for an influx of young families and the leaders among them? If not, is your community ready for the alternative?

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