World-Herald editorial: Rural youth welcomed back

Omaha World Herald April 2, 2014

 The migration of Nebraska's young people from rural counties to urban ones is a long-familiar topic. What's sometimes missing from the discussion is an understanding of an important factor that's explained by Craig Schroeder, a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Schroeder has wide experience in Great Plains youth and community development. Surveys of youth from rural areas, he tells The World-Herald, consistently show the same basic result:

"Overall, right at 50 percent of our young people picture themselves as coming back to their rural communities in the future, but 70 percent of those young people tell us that no adult has talked to them about the opportunities in the place that they'd like to come back to."

Communities across Nebraska have begun picking up on this need as a key component in the multi-part effort to sustain Nebraska's rural communities. It's crucial to "build that foundation with our young people," Schroeder says.

Youth retention is one of the main responses for Nebraska in the wake of Census Bureau estimates showing that only 31 of Nebraska's 93 counties gained population since 2010, with one county's population unchanged. (The new numbers showed improvement on one score, since more Nebraska counties — 31 — are now seeing population growth compared with the 2000-2010 period, when only 24 counties did.)

The Associated Press recently reported that members of the Nebraska Legislature are discussing ideas for rural development in the wake of the census findings. State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who has long focused on rural issues, said cooperative efforts among communities is one key, as illustrated by regional collaborations on school and health care needs.

Among the youth outreach efforts in rural Nebraska, one of the most energetic is found in Holt County in north central Nebraska. Each spring, Nicole Sedlacek, the county's economic development director, visits the graduating class at every high school in the county.

All of the students receive a full-sized, personalized mailbox with reminders that Holt County always extends the invitation for them to return home. The mailboxes have become a familiar item at graduation gatherings as people fill out "you're always welcome to return" messages and put them in the mailboxes.

Developing strategies to connect young people to rural jobs is important, but so is nurturing young people's entrepreneurial skills, says Joe Ferguson, a retired Northeast Community College division chief and rural development consultant.

"We need to start teaching entrepreneurship in the lower grades," Ferguson told The World-Herald. "We need to lay that out there like we do other career options. It needs to be an obvious career option — maybe it ought to be the first consideration."
Nebraska has "a lot of good programs out there" that introduce young people to entrepreneurship, he says, citing efforts by schools, nonprofits, higher education, businesses and government.

One standout effort is the ESI (Entrepreneurship Investigation) program in which groups sponsor summer camps and other activities in Nebraska communities. Commendable, too, are UNL's Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program as well as the incorporation of business education into the 4-H-sponsored Big Red Summer Academic Camp series.

Sometimes successful youth retention can be as complex as explaining the basics of a business plan. And sometimes it can be as simple as giving a high school graduate a symbolic mailbox — one that delivers a vital, enduring message:

Rural Nebraska will always welcome you home.