Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Youths And The Big World Out There

November 16, 2009

Question: As a parent, would you want your children to stake their future on a life in your small community? As a parent, teacher or rural clergy, how would you advise youth to prepare for their future?

Advice: Leave. Leave and get valuable post high school education that will equip you to succeed in today’s high tech, specialized economy. Take along your warm feelings about your upbringing in a small community with great friends, relatives and community life.

Obtaining a four year college degree is a major pathway to having greater income opportunities in the future. Children from the poorest families can quadruple their chances of rising to the top income bracket if they obtain a college education. Technical education also puts children in good stead for many of the jobs needed to support rural infrastructure and businesses.

It is still true that in America effort and hard work, especially applying oneself in higher education, can lead to opportunities for success regardless of family background.

Even if you come from a family with an established family business and a tradition of leadership in community life, leave. The longer you are away, the better business partner and community member you’ll be.

Your personality, your varied skills and your established track record of success in other competitive situations in society will prepare you for the challenges of a rural economy. You’ll be able to survive the changing rural economy and meet the social demands of leadership in a rural community. Going away will also prepare you to be able to emerge from the shadow of your parents’ reputation and make your own distinctive contributions.

The brain drain. Youth who succeed scholastically in high school usually leave rural communities to pursue higher education and occupations of their choice. There are too few professional or technical jobs in their home communities for them to consider returning as an option.

Data from one Upper Peninsula community in Michigan shows that young males from the upper half of the graduation classes left that area to pursue education and work opportunities elsewhere. They were unlikely to return despite the ups and downs of the local labor market. Of the return migrants, those who did return were from upper socioeconomic families.

Economic development that occurred in the region succeeded in retaining or luring back non-college educated males who would take blue collar jobs or jobs that require technical/crafts training.

The brain drain isn’t as pronounced for females as it is for males. High school achievement is not a factor in migration. Most leave regardless. Those who marry local young men stay. Those who don’t, leave. There are few opportunities for rewarding careers for young women in isolated rural communities, whether they are college educated or not.

In an Appalachian region of Kentucky, the majority of fifth grade children plan to leave their county after high school. This rises steadily to 88 percent and higher after the 9th grade. Those who plan on a college education

- 60 to 70 percent - usually make an early decision that they will not be coming back.

The future belongs to the entrepreneurs. For about 80 percent of rural youths, leaving is a given. Coming back is optional. Those youth who may come back some day will be entrepreneurial types whose connection and memory of rural community life are positive.

As always, surviving in a rural economy will rest squarely on those who use personal ingenuity to make a living. It takes an aggressive business orientation and marketing sense to make a living in sparsely settled communities. Even with established farms and ranches, operating secondary businesses makes good sense.

Youth in rural schools who are given an emphasis in entrepreneurial attitudes and skills are well prepared for a possible future in a rural community. Their future success benefits by participation in extracurricular activities, networking with adults, assuming leadership roles and working with others in cooperative ventures.

If economic development doesn't depend youth coming back, what does it depend on?

- It depends on enticing dynamic young families in their childbearing and child-rearing years to a rural community.

- It depends on enticing dynamic business owners to locate their businesses in the community.

- It depends on dynamic people of retirement age coming back to their rural community and needing something important to do.

- It depends on people with a mastery of telecommunications and specialized market niches. This makes it possible to live anywhere to do their work. They choose to live in a small community for "quality of life" reasons.

- Mostly it depends on home grown local entrepreneurs who have successful businesses with regional, national and international markets for their products or services. Business expansion and encouraging new businesses creates jobs for the 20 percent of youth who never leave and depend on the entrepreneurial energy of others for their skilled and semi-skilled jobs.

Local leaders help make the community attractive enough to attract newcomers, welcome back old-timers and encourage and support those entrepreneurs who have stayed. Community development is economic development. Economic opportunities will be apparent for those who have eyes to see them.

Education should prepare youth for their future outside the rural community. However, that education should include a vision for budding entrepreneurs who someday may want to capture both the excitement of business opportunities and the comfort of hometown living.

Don't fight the brain drain; prepare for a brain influx.