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Panel examines New York’s ‘rural brain drain’
April 19, 2011Tweet
Population studies continue to show that young adults are leaving upstate New York in large numbers and municipalities are struggling to cope. But instead of asking “How do you stop them from leaving?” John Sipple suggests turning the question around and instead asking “How do you attract them to stay?”
Sipple, director of the New York State Center for Rural Schools, spoke about upstate New York’s rural brain drain at a Binghamton University Forum luncheon April 14. He was joined on the panel by Cornell doctoral student Scott Sanders and Rod Howe, executive director of the Community and Regional Development Institute.
Citing three studies, Sipple said that, if upstate New York was a state unto itself, it would rank in the middle for the percentage of 18-55 year olds who migrate out of state, but would rank 49th out of 50 in the percentage of people migrating in. “What about this lack of a magnet to attract people here?” he asked. “We need different solutions other than trying to trap people into staying here.”
Broome County’s reality is dropping enrollments in schools and a growing base of elderly, he said. “Wages are going up, but unemployment is sky-rocketing. This gives us a sense of where we are.”
SIpple cited the book, Hollowing Out the Middle, that looks at the state of Iowa – the only state in the nation that looks worse than New York, he said. The book concludes that “the best kids go, while the ones with the biggest problems stay and we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation.”
“We’re losing the ones who we spend lot of attention on but who don’t see a reason to return because they don’t see much here for them,” Sipple said. “We invest a fair amount in curricular expenditure on these students and we need to think about how it’s spent for the future of the community and not just the individual students.”
Sipple addressed the decision-makers for these curricular expenditures as well. “Who helped make these decisions?” he asked. “In urban districts, the most influential were the state education department and professional associations, in suburban districts, the community pops right up in making decisions, and in rural districts, the community dips to below average again.
“Who are we serving when making these decisions? In poor communities, the community is dramatically less involved, while in the wealthiest communities, the local community is very, very involved. Who should be at the table and what messages are we sending to kids?” he asked.
Turning to the expectations of young adults, Sanders took a look at the decision process for young adults. “What contributes to their decisions about where to live?” he asked. Interviews and focus groups including local business and education leaders and high school seniors, and a survey of recent high school graduates defined the reasons for staying or leaving as economic opportunities, the diversity of housing stock, transportation and community resources.
“Talking to students, we found there’s a lack of perceived role models, so they didn’t see how they could be capable of leaving for an education and coming back home to have the kind of life they envisioned for themselves,” he said.
Sanders said most young people make their decisions early on in high school with sometimes very limited input. “They’re not understanding what we really have in the Southern Tier,” he said. “There’s a lack of connection between employers and high schools. Ideally, we would have more of an interchange of information with youth and young adults.”
High school graduates also perceived that a poor economic climate equates to no job opportunities, Sanders said. “If there was an outstanding economic outlook, they would expect to live in the region. If the economic climate was poor, 80 percent of the college students would choose to live outside of the region.”
Sanders added that the students were also interested in efforts to improve the region. “Over 90 percent of the students we surveyed would live outside of the area if they don’t perceive its leaders are trying to improve the area.”
Looking at three factors – economy, environment, community – Sanders said that without a strong economy and the chance to get ahead, 90 percent of those surveyed would expect to live somewhere else, but 70 percent would return if the economy reversed. Looking at environmental factors, if respondents perceived the region was not a great place to live, they would leave, and environmental factors alone would not be enough to attract them back.
“It’s not just jobs, jobs, jobs,” Sanders said. “Community factors, like the proximity of family and friends, is particularly important, and would attract the majority of respondents back if they perceived strong community resources.”
Howe addressed workforce development and outreach initiatives designed to look at what regions can do to counteract drain.
“There are a number of initiatives happening and they’re all connected to economic development,” he said. “Leadership is very important, as well as collaboration and partnerships.”
Noting some of the resources available to help us move forward to attract and retain talent, Howe referred to a community sustainability webinar series on attracting and retaining young adults and a webinar on what the green economy means and what job opportunities might be related to it.
“For example,” he said. “We need to be retrofitting more of our households for energy conservation so we can train folks with the skill sets to go into homes. We need more people for this.”
Five area counties also have Energy Corps programs starting or underway, Howe said.
“Broome County has a Green Jobs Task Force and the city has put in $170,000 to help develop it,” Howe said. “It’s all about experimentation and helping folks develop the skills to deal with emerging technologies and issues.”
Entrepreneurship is also vital, he said. “I feel that entrepreneurship should even be talked about in middle and high school.”
Specific resources Howe mentioned included Project ION, upstate New York’s dynamic summer internship program (www.project-ion.com), and the Essential NY Jobs program (www.essentialnyjobs.com) that promotes career opportunities in the Southern Tier and all over New York.
“We need to do a better job of making sure people know of these initiatives and take advantage of them,” Howe said.
Howe said there will be a Southern Tier Education Pipeline Summit on May 23, for community, industry, business and education leaders. “It will be a roll up your sleeves initiative to identify opportunities to improve our pipeline that prepares youth and citizens for local and regional career opportunities.”
Other efforts, such as the Canal Corridor Search Conference and the State of Upstate New York Conference in June in Syracuse, will address working together across regions and the roles of universities and colleges in workforce development issues.