The future of small towns will require helping entrepreneurial young people learn the skills and find the resources they'll need to succeed with local businesses.
In community after community, asking rural young people if they plan to live in their hometowns in the future meets with lukewarm responses. But, when the question is changed, to ask how many youth would like to stay or return if there were quality career opportunities available, well over half shoot their hands into the air.
Clearly, it is the perceived lack of careers that is causing many rural youth to believe that they must leave their hometowns and never return.
In reality, some careers of interest to youth may not be available through traditional employment in many rural communities. The good news is, according to a seven-year survey of rural young people, that almost half of rural youth are not interested in traditional careers: they want to own their own businesses. Rural places that tie their economic development resources to entrepreneurship-education can create help these young people pursue their dreams and, in turn, revitalize, grow and diversify their own local economies.
Over the past seven years, the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship at the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) has surveyed over 25,000 middle-to-high-school-age youth about their communities, education and career goals and their attitudes toward living in their hometowns in the future. We discovered a remarkable consistency in attitudes among rural youth from very different regions of county.
Of those surveyed, 51% picture themselves staying or returning home in the future if there are opportunities to do so. Yet only one-third of rural youth say that an adult has asked for their ideas or encouraged their efforts to make the community a more attractive place. These findings held true in diverse rural communities nationwide.
In tandem with this survey research, the Center has conducted focus groups with hundreds of young people from around the country, adding their narratives to the survey results. They convey that quality career opportunities don’t appear to be available in rural hometowns, and with this perception, many youth believe they won’t be able to stay or return home.
Through the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship’s work with rural communities that are confronting this problem, four elements have emerged as key in developing and nurturing young entrepreneurs:
• Interactive Entrepreneurship Education
• Supportive Community Environment
• Peer Networking
• Pathways from Education to Opportunity
Interactive Entrepreneurship Education
Successful young entrepreneurship programs are built on a foundation of quality curriculum taught by teachers who engage students in the discovery and development of their entrepreneurial talents. Teachers who have family business backgrounds are often exceptional at conveying business concepts to entrepreneurial students.
This approach is also important because students who are motivated by entrepreneurship are often creative, hands-on learners who thrive in such a learning environment. Interactive curriculum and engaging teachers who make the material come to life are key ingredients in successful entrepreneurship programs.
Many rural schools lack the resources to dedicate an entire class to entrepreneurship – a real challenge. It may also be difficult to fit entrepreneurship into an already full schedule, with required classes and electives for college-bound students.
Incorporating entrepreneurship into an existing class such as Accounting, Industrial Arts or Consumer Science has been a solution to this constraint in many of the schools we work with. Other options have included after-school programs and entrepreneurship summer camps.
Supportive Community Environment
The most successful communities work in partnership with their schools; the town itself becomes a “learning laboratory” where students can practice the knowledge they are gaining in the classroom. This approach may involve students’ working in apprenticeships, selling products at school events or farmers markets, interviewing local entrepreneurs or carrying out an entrepreneurial community service project.
Local leaders who take an interest in young entrepreneurs can change the attitudes young people hold about the communities and their futures. Many entrepreneurial youth express frustration that their communities seem to focus only on exceptional students and star athletes. They also tell us, “There is nothing for us to do here.”
Building relationships with students who want to get involved in the community, supporting their efforts, and celebrating their local and entrepreneurial projects can help them develop into productive citizens and also make a hometown more attractive as a place to stay or return to.
Just as with entrepreneurial adults, young entrepreneurs need a place to hang out with other youth who think the way they do. Fitting in is a big deal when you’re a teenager. Young entrepreneurs know they that think differently, and that sense can cause them to retreat by themselves to experiment with their ideas.
But if towns provide a place for young entrepreneurs to gather and interact, they can feed off each other’s energy and create even better ideas and inventions. This space may be a parent’s garage, workroom or basement family room on Tuesday evenings with pizza and soda. Just provide the space, welcome young people in and let them innovate and have fun!
Pathways from Education to Opportunity
Ultimately, successful communities help young entrepreneurs transition from the learning and experimentation process to tangible business opportunities. There needs to be deliberate effort to help young people clarify their business interests, to direct them to opportunities that fit their passions and abilities, and to stay with them as their enterprises develop.
This work may involve conducting an inventory of soon-to-retire business owners, local people who plan to sell their businesses over the next several years. It may include helping with a business plan or using an existing revolving loan fund to help a capable young person without much equity or cash to get started in business. Each young entrepreneur is unique. Local adults need to find out what help each one needs to move ahead.
To be truly successful, youth entrepreneurship must become a priority within a community’s economic development strategy. Youth entrepreneurship requires a sustained effort, especially in this challenging economic climate where much of the attention is focused on immediate job creation.
However, unless rural communities with declining and aging populations succeed in attracting more entrepreneurial young people, their long-term futures are threatened. It doesn’t so much matter what we do tomorrow or next week if in 20 years most of the current residents have passed on and the next generation has left town never to return.
An old adage goes, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today!”
The Nebraska survey findings come from Nebraska HomeTown Competitiveness, a partnership of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, Heartland Center for Leadership Development and Nebraska Community Foundation. North Carolina youth survey results were gathered by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.
Craig Schroeder is Senior Fellow for Youth Engagement at RUPRI’s Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. To explore ways to incorporate youth entrepreneurship into your economic development plan, contact Craig via email: [email protected]