Authors and Husband-and-wife sociologists Patrick J. Carr (Rutgers University at New Brunswick) and Maria J. Kefalas (Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia) have written a new book on the Hollowing Out of the Middle: the Rural Brain Drain and What It Means For America, due out next month. They’ve written an article in the Chronicle Review summarizing their results and providing tips for how to stop this from happening.
While this article is about the States, it applies to any North American small town, many that are at risk to rolling away.
First of all, I hadn’t realized how important it was NOT to push people to go far away from their homes to succeed. We’re always telling kids who have the knack for college to move far away and go to college and fly—become more than their small town roots. It seems so logical to get the talented, creative, smart ones out of the “rut” and the “lack of opportunity” of a small town. But the unintended message that those who stay receive is that their lives are smaller, more secondary, second-class. In fact, however, if small towns are to survive, Carr and Kefalas suggest we boost our opportunities to those who will stay. Rather than settling with the idea that the small town has no opportunity, Carr and Kefalas suggest we provide local links to opportunity and think ahead for the town. In some ways, they seem to be thinking about the town first, and the individual second— but definitely using the creative energy produced by the town to create a better town. It’s not unlike exporting Americans to foreign countries. If we constantly say our country is declining—Johnny, you go over to France where you’ll do better, then we’re creating an immigration that will doom small town America.
I like their ideas. I love small towns–I grew up in them: Braymer, Caruthersville, Bledsoe, Plainview, Edmonson, and all their surrounding towns. And I want to save small towns. I think Carr and Kefalas have a lot to offer. Here’s a bit of that article, and afterwards, a place for you to read the whole thing. This is the end section though, so if you want how they came to these tips, you need to read the beginning:
What can be done to plug the brain drain?
Though the problem is daunting, we believe that it is not intractable, but that any set of solutions must combine changes at micro and macro levels.
Small towns need to equalize their investments across different groups of young people. While it would be impractical, and downright wrong, to abort students’ ambitions, there must be a radical rethinking of the goals of high-school education. The single-minded focus on pushing the most motivated students into four-year colleges must be balanced by efforts to match young people not headed for bachelor’s degrees with training, vocational, and assorted associate-degree programs. Those programs fill the needs of a postindustrial economy but acknowledge that not every student wants to, or will, pursue a more traditional college path.
Also, school officials, parents, educators, and students must resist the temptation to think the noncollege bound will just get a job if a degree is not in the cards. Gone are the days of plentiful, well-paying blue-collar factory jobs that provided a 19-year-old with a living wage. Thinking that working the line at John Deere or Winnebago will vault you into the middle class makes about as much sense as buying eight-track tapes in the iPod age. All the planning and investments have been geared to collegebound students, while the reality is that students not earning a college degree need as much, if not more, intensive preparation for today’s labor market.
The next step is to build better links between high-school and postsecondary education, and map existing opportunities onto regional economic goals. Most of the job growth within Iowa is expected to come from computer, biotech, wind energy, and health care. Matching high-school students not headed for university with vocational or community-college programs, nurturing their interests while in high school through internships and training, will prepare them for the new economic growth areas. Such partnerships require close collaborations among business and civic leaders, elected officials, and secondary and community-college administrators who are accustomed to working in their own bureaucracies. Moreover, the growing distance-learning technology should not cater only to older, returning students. If students are interested in wind technology or nursing, rather than making them take social studies senior year, how about connecting them with a distance-learning class at Iowa Lakes Community College in Introduction to Computers?
Third, small towns should seek to embrace immigration whenever possible. The phenomenon of Hispanic boomtowns, a common occurrence in the Midwest, has the potential to transform moribund local economies. Such transformations will be possible only if there is careful planning to ensure that immigrants are integrated into the community in such as way as to increase contact between natives and immigrants and with attendant labor-law reform that curbs abuses and ensures sufficient wages and benefits for workers in agribusiness and manufacturing. Ph.D.’s from India or China and less-skilled immigrants from Mexico or Central America should all be recruited and supported in an effort to make the heartland an immigrant enterprise zone. The region is in critical need of professional-class workers, and bringing in Hispanic workers for the food industry will not be enough to rejuvenate the region.
And the article keeps going here, The Rural Brain Drain, in the Chronicle Review.