The Opportunities Now in Rural America

It's said that people don't want to move to rural America. This author knows that's not true but concedes there are obstacles in moving people where rural opportunities are available.

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I looked this morning at the jobs available right now in Columbus, our town in east-central Nebraska. We need teachers, welders, a couple of engineers, sales professionals, accountants, various manufacturing production jobs, retail associates…and the list goes on.

For years, we have had an on-going discussion in Columbus about possible solutions to our problem of how to convince workers to move to our town.  Obviously, we haven’t found THE solution because we’re still working on it.  In fact, one of the primary “learnings” so far is that there is no one solution. The challenge is more complex than that. Instead, it will take many different pieces to complete the puzzle of providing a sufficient skilled workforce in rural America. 

Let’s talk about a few of our ideas. Generally, they fall into two buckets: recruiting adults and preparing students.

One solution is to move people to where the jobs are.  As I’ve mentioned previously, we’ve found many people, even with great skill-sets, have been out of work for months or years and have used up their financial resources, leaving them unable to move.  

Columbus has asked our Congressman, Rep. Adrian Smith, and others to find a way for unemployment benefits to be used so a person in an area of high unemployment could take “an advance” on their benefits for relocation to a place where they can find work. It seems all parties involved have a vested interest in getting unemployed Americans to where the work is, so there should be a legislative solution that facilitates that process.  

Yes, we recognize that the “devil could be in the details” when it comes to holding people accountable and determining the regulations for a program such as this, but it’s too important not to try.  I should mention that our region isn’t suggesting that we should not bear some of the cost of this relocation program.  We would envision a “matching grant” process so that local governments and business communities are contributing as well as the federal and/or state government. 

Columbus Chamber of Commerce
Frankfort Square is the center of our town.
Another aspect of recruiting people to a small town on the Great Plains is simply a marketing task.  

How do people around the nation know where the jobs are?  There are so many jobs websites competing for attention, along with traditional media: How can we effectively communicate to people in Illinois, Arizona or Oregon about jobs in Columbus or other rural towns?

We don’t have a grand solution. Perhaps a national-level job clearinghouse sorted by career that pulls openings from other on-line and off-line sources?  While that may just be too big a job to be practical, maybe rural areas with jobs should come together to create a “ruraljobs.com” website.  

While we hear all the time how “nobody wants to move to rural America” to take a job, I simply don’t think that’s true. If there were a place where those interested in this lifestyle could effectively search for jobs, we think this could be pretty effective!

The real long-term solution lies in how we educate our children. 

There is a critical need to communicate better with students at a young age about opportunities in their hometowns.  For far too long, parents and communities around here have told their children that they have to leave to find opportunity. Particularly today, that just IS NOT TRUE.  

Just look at a map of unemployment rates. It’s fairly easy to define the Great Plains right now as the “land of opportunity” for job seekers, more than any other part of the nation.

The other, equally important, fact that we need to communicate to our students is that there are wonderful opportunities in skilled trades. 

How many American families have told their children that being a plumber, instrument technician, electrician, welder, nurse’s assistant, or maintenance tech were honorable, lucrative professions? I’d wager it’s not enough to fill the jobs that are being created in those areas.  

And how many families have stressed hard work in math and science courses as the path to even more lucrative jobs in engineering? I will guarantee you it’s not enough to fill the jobs being created in engineering.

In Columbus, we’ve tried to preach that gospel through a partnership between schools and our Chamber of Commerce workforce initiative. Our schools have invested in the initiative and a strong menu of valuable programs has resulted. Here’s a sample:

 • “Vehicle Day” exposes primary-grade students to local careers through fun experiences climbing on vehicles used in those jobs, like a fire truck, mail truck, or a garbage truck.  

• “Reality 101” exposes middle-school students to the realities of bills and expenses so they understand the value of a good career and by extension the value of good grades.  

• “University Week” planted the seed with elementary students that they should all have the expectation of going to college to enjoy a great career.

We’re also trying to share this message through teachers. Central Community College-Columbus and a number of partners have been leading “Project Shine,” a summer externship that puts teachers in every discipline into industries across Nebraska.  

Columbus Chamber of Commerce
The man who designed the assault boat that helped win World War II, Andrew Jackson Higgins, was born in Columbus. We have a memorial to him and a tribute to his creation.
Locally, the Chamber of Commerce partnered on “Education in Industry Day,” which brought EVERY middle-school and high-school teacher in Columbus into a business and industry for a morning. These teachers got to see first-hand the realities in today’s business and manufacturing world.  

In both these instances, teachers of math and English and P.E. — all subjects — are finding great value in lesson plans that incorporate real-world realities, and at the same time, they are building awareness of great careers in Nebraska!

This is a beginning.  Some of our attempts have succeeded; others have not.  

We do know that there are things our region can’t do alone. They require a national or at least statewide approach.  Let’s get that conversation started and put more people to work in small-town America!

K.C. Belitz is president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

 

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