Depopulation Is Not the Entire Story
While the "depopulation" of much of rural America has been well documented, it is not the case that the road out of town is a one-way street. The Census repeatedly confirms that, even in the very rural Northern Great Plains, a significant percentage of rural residents are relative newcomers to their communities, having resided there for five years or less. In fact, it is fairly common to find those newcomers comprising 20-percent or more of the population of rural communities.
In 2006, a research team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln set out to identify the motivations and experiences of individuals and families who had moved to Nebraska's eleven most western counties. This project was undertaken at the request of a regional development organization. That group had collected anecdotal evidence suggesting that people from the Colorado "front range" were moving to western Nebraska as an alternative to urban social, economic and environmental conditions that they found to be problematic.
New Resident Motivations and Skills Identified
A two-year study involving new residents and development professionals in western Nebraska supported that belief and provided additional insights into the motivations and decision making processes associated with the decision to move to a rural community.
The study also supported the proposition that new residents were bringing important skills to local economies in rural areas. Some rural communities find themselves facing a labor shortage even as their population shrinks. This is often especially true for skilled labor and entrepreneurs willing to establish a new local business.
We found that businesses which are unable to effectively fill their labor requirements locally are often required to recruit workers from outside the community. If that fails, they may find themselves being forced to move their operations to more densely settled locations with larger labor pools. The outcome for a rural community can be devastating both economically and socially.
Targeted Community Marketing-A Different Approach
This raised another interesting question: Can a community assist their area businesses in recruiting and retaining the workers that they require for success? That question led to another study focusing specifically on rural communities that could be demonstrated to be creating jobs faster than they were growing their potential labor force. In the second study we collected information from new residents in six targeted communities. We also worked with those communities to better understand their business sectors and existing recruitment strategies. Where those communities did not have s specific recruitment strategy, we offered encouragement and advice for creating one.
Now, after five years of investigation, the authors of this work believe that rural communities can indeed influence both the attraction and the retention of new residents and in doing so can support the success of their local businesses. In fact, we have come to believe that communities can be 'marketed' in much the same way that goods and services are marketed by successful businesses.
The idea of marketing a community in an effort to attract new residents is not meant to be a substitute for the economic development efforts that many communities are already engaged in, but rather as an important adjunct to those efforts. The goal should not be simply to attract more people, but to attract those people who will add to the potential for success among those businesses that support the local economy. It should be a collaborative effort between the business and civic sectors.
The pages that follow will provide a comprehensive look at both of these research projects. Scholars and development professionals will be able to find detailed descriptions of our research methods and findings complete with survey instruments and focus group results. Communities interested in applying our findings to the development of their own recruitment strategies will find instructive ideas on how to successfully do so.
This research is ongoing. As more information and insights become available it will be added to this site