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It’s not about jobs, it’s about people

July 24, 2018

For years, headlines across rural America looked bleak — job loss, population loss, and loss of critical financial resources due to what has been dubbed the “intergenerational transfer of wealth.”

Pick up a newspaper or turn on the news today, however, and you’re likely to notice a change in tone.

For instance, one publication recently reported that “brain drain” is being countered by “brain gain.” What small communities are losing in high school graduates, they’re gaining in highly skilled and well-educated newcomers and returners.

And The Atlantic has noted a “reverse talent migration” taking young people to and back to smaller communities where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is high.

This is not to say that rural America and Greater Nebraska do not still face their fair share of challenges.

Nebraska Community Foundation and its network of 1,700 volunteers are just one entity looking at innovative solutions to tackle some of rural America’s most perplexing issues – access to quality childcare and healthcare among them. But my colleagues and I can’t help but notice the new brand of optimism that is taking shape across Greater Nebraska.

Communities as large as Norfolk and as small Byron are embracing change, leveraging local assets and forging their own path forward. People attraction is at the center of their efforts.

In the 21st century economy, we can live and work just about anywhere we want. So today, the community economic development question is not one of jobs. The better question is: Why here? Why do I want to live, work and raise my family in this community. It is imperative that we give young people good reason to stay or join us. People attraction should be our highest priority.

In so many places across the state, Nebraska’s community leaders are succeeding at this. In fact, in 53 of our most rural counties, the population of 30- and 40-year-olds is on the rise. In many of these Nebraska hometowns, local philanthropy is fueling people attraction initiatives like arts and culture, recreation and early childhood development. It’s also instilling local pride and giving local citizens the confidence to talk about what makes their communities so wonderful and invite others to be a part of them.

And we must never underestimate the power of invitation.

In my hometown of Red Cloud, a group of alumni are actively reaching out to their former classmates and inviting them back home. It’s working. Danny and Valerie Benge and their three young daughters are back in Red Cloud running the local grocery in part thanks to a little positive peer pressure.

And just ask Ross Tegeler why he returned to his hometown of Meadow Grove. He’ll tell you it’s because he was personally invited!

Invitation is a powerful tool that will help shape Greater Nebraska’s future. It starts with the way we talk to our youngest citizens about the future. It means creating an optimistic and honorable brand for Greater Nebraska. And can we all agree, it means giving our high school graduates anything but luggage?

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Jeff Yost is president and CEO of Nebraska Community Foundation.

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