A Drop of Ink
By Reed Anfinson
Job fairs, extensive advertising placements, and significant signing bonuses are all being used to find workers to fill the jobs our local manufacturers and businesses need.
One argument some offered for people not wanting to live in our small towns was a wage scale lower than in metropolitan areas. Not anymore. Many of our manufacturers are offering good-paying jobs with benefits.
Through the decades, we have seen our rural populations continually decline as families have gotten smaller, farms larger, and young people move away either to college or to pursue jobs away from home. Too often, we have assumed that once they had left, they weren’t coming back. That doesn’t have to be the case; some could be enticed to come back with the right incentives.
“Now a team of Iowa State University researchers have identified three significant factors that draw people back to their hometowns a decade or two after leaving: public schools, population density and other college-degree-holders in the community, Rachel Cramer writes for the Iowa State University News Service.
“The researchers found that “college graduates between 34 and 43 years of age were more likely to return to the rural communities where they grew up if they had a strong attachment to their public K-12 schools. Feeling like their teachers cared or that they were part of the school community and had close friends were significant drivers,” Cramer writes.
While you might think that those who had attended a large school would be the most likely to return to their communities, that wasn’t the case. In fact, smaller was better.
Those students who attended a high school with class sizes of under 25 were most likely to consider coming home. Once class sizes got over 60, there was a considerable decline in returning to the community where they went to school.
“We often hear that rural schools aren’t as good as their urban counterparts, but here is an example where they are in a unique position to foster strong relationships and a sense of belonging, which can have long-term impacts,” Stephanie Sowl, one of the paper’s co-authors and a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at Iowa State said.
A key to developing a sense of belonging is the degree to which we participate in our communities. In small schools, students participate in everything from sports, to music, to business professional clubs, to FAA (Future Farmers of America.) In our smaller communities, many often are involved in 4-H. Through their participation, they develop leadership skills and close ties.
Iowa State’s researchers found that one of the reasons those 34 to 43 consider moving back to their small-town communities is that they know there are leadership roles to be filled and through which that can have an impact. They are valued and needed volunteers and bring new ideas to their communities, they write.
Then there is something to be said for returning home. “I think there’s power in returning to a place where people know you,” Sowl said.
The researchers found that the stronger community and school attachment former students had, the more likely they were to return home.
One of the reasons the Iowa State University study focused on those between the ages of 34 to 43 was that they were now at a different point in their lives than when they left home. They were financially more secure. They were raising children of their own.
“During this life stage, they may also have a shift in priorities that would lead them back to their hometowns,” Sowl said. “Older college graduates may be more interested in a safe place to raise their kids, good schools, affordable housing, and open space.” We have safe places and good schools, but we have a lot of work on housing. We don’t have nearly enough, and it’s too expensive to build new for many families.
The researchers say their study highlights “the importance of investing in public K-12 schools and opportunities to foster a sense of belonging in youth. The researchers suggested schools and community partners introduce youth to careers in the area so that they are aware of opportunities later in life.”
That point was underscored in another study on rural New Hampshire. It found that for people to return to a community where they grew up, it wasn’t just about the job but also “whether they thought adults listened to them in their youth.”
“It is important to consider how enhancing youth experiences in these areas, as early as possible in their education, could elevate future aspirations, expectations, and attainment,” Erin Rhoda of the Bangor Daily News wrote of the study.
If we are going to bring our former students home, we need targeted community strategies for reaching out to them to get them involved today. Then, we have to stay in touch.
How many of our communities have developed a database of their high school graduates through which they can reach out to the people who already have a local connection? That database would be a resource for posting job openings and reaching out to former students.
Through the database of our graduates, we could send out regular newsletters that promote the assets of our communities and the innovative things happening in our schools. We can kindle that spark of school pride and belonging.
With today’s technology, developing the database would not be tdifficult. However, it will take one of our local units of government, with the help of our school districts, to lead the effort. If we don’t pursue this untapped reservoir of potential employees for our businesses and manufacturers, for our local governments, and our health care facilities, we will continue to struggle filling job openings.
Too often today, our business are bidding against one another for local residents. Let’s give them an expanded pool of potential employees.