This summer my oldest brother and I both retired; he after 30 years in farming and me after 30 years in higher education.
We made comfortable livings. We raised families. He ran a successful business. I contributed to the public good. We individually deem our careers successful.
But if you consider our careers from the vantage point of the hometown we grew up in — the hometown that invested time and money in our upbringing and education — the calculus changes. Which brother’s career provided the biggest return on our hometown’s investment?
I went to college and later found a career outside my hometown. I have returned nothing to the community I grew up in. The taxpayers, teachers, counselors, friends, and neighbors who contributed to my upbringing and education have realized a zero return on their investment.
My brother went to college and later returned to farm. He ran a business, raised a family, served on the school and village boards, donated time and money, and otherwise made significant contributions to the community’s welfare. The return on investment in my brother’s upbringing and education has been huge.
One of the biggest challenges for rural communities is the out-migration of our children. Do communities and citizens do enough to promote work, entrepreneurship, and career opportunities in our own hometowns? How often do we say or imply that the lights are brighter or the grass is greener somewhere else? How many of us know the job, entrepreneurial, and career opportunities available in our hometown and how often do we speak of these opportunities to young people?
Not long ago local leaders asked Richland County citizens to identify their community’s biggest challenges. The out-migration of talented young people was identified. Citizens blamed the loss on a lack of good jobs in Richland County. The same leaders asked local employers why there were no jobs, only to find out there are many jobs available in Richland County. Indeed, employers complained they cannot find enough talented applicants.
If small rural communities are to survive and thrive, I believe many things, but at least the following five, need to be accomplished.
First, we need to know what job, entrepreneurial, and career opportunities exist in our hometowns. And by “we” I mean all citizens, but particularly parents; teachers and professors: guidance counselors and advisers; school, college, and university administrators; friends and neighbors. Local business professionals and others “in the know” need to educate their fellow citizens about the available opportunities.
Second, we need to talk early and often to young people about the education, job, entrepreneurial, and career opportunities in our hometowns. Of course, they won’t all pursue those opportunities, but don’t we owe it to our communities, to ourselves, and to our children to at least make them aware of the local possibilities? That’s what’s happening now in Richland County.
Third, we need to make certain that local schools, colleges, and universities that receive taxpayer funding invest in and offer robust programming tied to local workforce, entrepreneurial, and career opportunities. They also should develop accountability measures and periodically report how well they are serving their community’s workforce and entrepreneurial needs. This is a bit tricky because UW–Platteville serves communities across the entire state, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College serves communities in a five-county region, and Platteville Public Schools serves a very local district. Nevertheless, we taxpayers invest heavily in the education and training of our children and we deserve to know what return our community is receiving on that investment.
Fourth, we need to realize that the local retention of young people is not and cannot be the sole responsibility of schools, colleges, and universities. Parents, family members, employers, and all community members need to be part of the solution.
Fifth, we must stop or at least question explicit or implied judgments about the value of different kinds of work or where the “grass might be greener.” Three cheers for engineers who design bridges and the universities which train them, but let’s also give three cheers for the concrete and steel workers who build those bridges as well as for the schools and colleges which train them. Three cheers for the kid who goes off to a “big name” university and then works in some suburb, but let’s also gives three cheers for the kid who sooner or later finds work and a career in his or her hometown.
If our rural communities are to survive and thrive, we need young people to replace those of us who are no longer in the workforce or no longer creating wealth and jobs through entrepreneurship. Our best bet is to do what we can to promote opportunities to train local, work local, and contribute local. Our hometowns need more people like my brother and fewer like me.
Ford, the retired president of Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, made these comments as the elected chair of Platteville Public Schools’ annual meeting Aug. 24.