Communities around the country are facing a skills shortage as their best and brightest leave after high school and don’t return. But why exactly are young adults leaving their hometowns and how can local employers encourage them to stick around instead?
Over the past several decades, jobs in rural areas have dwindled as small family farms were bought out and manufacturing jobs outsourced overseas. As opportunities for stable employment disappear, young adults start to feel their towns lack opportunity and look to larger metropolitan areas to start their career. The result? Unfilled jobs and unmet needs as older adults retire without having anyone to take their place.
The problem isn’t restricted to tiny, isolated towns. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 1,350 rural counties have suffered population loss since 2010, leaving just 19 percent of Americans living in rural parts of the country. The remaining rural population is comprised of a disproportionate number of elderly people; a quarter of all U.S. senior citizens live in rural areas, and the oldest counties in America are almost all rural. If that’s hard to visualize, these maps at CityLab show just how widespread the problem is.
While it may seem like one company can’t make a difference for such a big problem, employers do have an important role to play in preventing brain drain. According to a 2014 study published in Sociological Spectrum, the presence of locally-owned businesses in a community can encourage high school and college graduates to remain in the town, especially when the business owners are active in and engaged with the community.
When it comes to plugging the brain drain, employers should look for opportunities for creative collaboration with schools. By connecting with students and recent alumni, local businesses can recruit future employees who will, in turn, spend their dollars in the community to further improve the economy.
Employers can partner with high schools to talk about career options in their industry and the training students need to qualify for them. While visiting a classroom is a great start, tours of a business are more effective at making the message stick. When students see the inner workings of a business, they can see firsthand what goes into the job, ask questions, and discover opportunities they might not otherwise be aware of. Of course, the topic needn’t be limited to a specific industry: By sharing the story behind their own small business success, employers can inspire young adults to start businesses and create more jobs in the community.
For a deeper level of engagement, employers can host yearly workshops or classes that introduce students to the skills required by their field. While it’s a time commitment on the company’s behalf, it can be an important educational experience for students in rural communities where schools are often under-funded with a limited curriculum. And, employers can identify students who possess talent and interest in their industry and encourage them to pursue employment in the field.
Internships are another vehicle for employers to engage the community and identify budding talent. A summer internship program might target high schoolers, while a paid internship aimed at college students can encourage young adults to return to the area after graduation. When done right, these program are an effective way to find new employees for a business while eliminating much of the risk that comes with recruiting from a job posting. The Small Business Administration offers advice for business owners starting an internship program at their company.
While brain drain is a battle the whole community must face together, local businesses are in a unique position make a difference in rural America. By exposing students to opportunity and illuminating the path to success, employers can empower young adults to improve their town’s economic landscape rather than migrating out.