The song, "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree)" was written by Sam Lewis and Joe Young and published right at the end of World War One. It predicted the difficulty small towns were going to have keeping returning soldiers content living in rural America after they'd seen the sights and sounds of the "big city." It was prophetic in that it musically expressed in 1918 a problem facing rural America at the beginning of the 21st Century, the exodus of its young people, otherwise known as the "brain drain."
Brain drain, or "human capital flight," is the mass emigration of young people from one place to another. Often, the young people leaving are the more educated and more technically skilled, but not always.
Brain drain happens for many reasons, lack of employment opportunities, personal conflicts, the inability to meet someone of the opposite (or same) sex, "better" educational opportunities, or simply wanderlust.
Or, as husband and wife sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, authors of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America contend, "small towns play an unwitting role in their own decline" by inculcating, in school and too often at home, the belief that fulfilling one's promise means leaving for the city lights or the manicured suburbs." My friend, Dr. Barry Mack, loaned me his copy; it's worth the read.
Perhaps Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry stated it more succinctly, "The purpose of education today is to train young people to leave home." The rural brain drain isn't a new phenomenon, though. In fact, a writer in 1910 expressed a concern in the Desert Farmer, a leading Utah agricultural journal at the time, that the "lack of women willing to live a 'farmer's life' would make it difficult to keep men on the farm."
What is new, and of great concern, is that the shortage of young people may be reaching a tipping point, and the consequences of not reversing the trend are more severe now than ever before. According to The Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson, more than 700 rural counties lost 10 percent or more of their population in just over two decades.
Nationally, there are more deaths than births in 50 percent of rural counties.
In any event, a new birth can't replace the loss of a young person just as they are about to become a worker, taxpayer, homeowner or parent.
Although the majority of rural counties have fallen behind in attracting and retaining young people, some rural counties have not.
It will be interesting to see the results of the recently completed census, but my guess is that some small towns may be on the verge of being unsustainable, while others are attracting and retaining young people.
Some have said that brain drain is an inescapable part of the North Country's culture. But that assumption is costly and paralyzing. Fortunately, it is also false.
Make no mistake, it's a daunting problem; but solvable.
The difficulty is that there is no sure-fire formula to keep or attract young people. What comes first — the businesses with good jobs paying sustainable wages who hire the graduates, or the graduates who attract those types of businesses? I think it's simultaneously a little of both.
What is certain is that any set of solutions must combine change to the status quo.
So, what should we do to convince young people to stay in the North Country?
We need to continue to make the North Country an attractive place to live. Not that it isn't already. The North Country surely has many attractive attributes. But does it have the social, artistic, cultural and technological (broadband) amenities that young people (and businesses) want? We need to continue to pursue cultural economic-development approaches that increase our cultural assets.
We also need to preserve our environmental assets. We need to maintain and enhance our lakes, rivers, streams, parks and mountains.
But even with all the environmental and cultural attributes in the world, strong community values and a rich quality of life alone cannot support a family.
Rural brain drain is a symptom of a broader economic-development problem. Most rural areas lack the economic-development foundation that can attract and retain young people. It's not a problem we have.
In fact, our economic-development foundation may be our greatest attribute. We simply have not created enough good jobs in career paths that young people want to follow. But it hasn't been for lack of effort.
Moving forward, we need to commit to a shared vision of the future that includes reaching out and engaging young people on multiple levels. Equally important, we need to commit to economic-development strategies designed to reverse the loss of young, educated workers, or at least that encourages them to locate here. But to do that, we need a much better understanding of why young people in the region choose to leave, or choose to stay, or choose to move here.
Finally, we need the humility to work together regionally on implementing those strategies.
The brain drain does not have to be an inherent problem for rural counties; it's something that might be overcome with properly designed, well-informed strategies — and a shared vision.
Paul Grasso is the executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board, the county's designated workforce development planning agency, and the North Country Workforce Partnership Inc. He has more than 20 years experience developing workforce programs in both the United States and Europe.