Jeff Yost: Jobs are seeking people. Now what?

Recently, amid renewed concern about “the brain drain,” my thoughts returned to a particularly inspiring moment during Nebraska Community Foundation’s 2023 annual celebration.

At the end of her lunch plenary speech, Takaylynn Hergott of Hebron asked any attendees under the age of 25 to stand. As the applause faded, she told the audience to look around the hall at her peers who remained standing. This, she said, is the future. It was a powerful scene, and it hinted at something we’ve heard time and time again at NCF. Countless young Nebraskans have expressed a willingness, even a desire, to return to their hometowns and build a life. Yet Nebraska is now at or near the top of states (in percentage terms) in the net loss of college graduates. What should we do?

To reverse the brain drain we need to evolve our conventional wisdom. For so long, the prevailing narrative was that people seek jobs—that’s no longer the case. For the first time in my life, jobs are now seeking people. Communities are seeking people. I first observed this phenomenon about a decade ago, and the last five years have seen it rooted in our reality. With the rise of remote work, a community’s quality of life matters more than ever. Exceptional schools (including early childhood development); quality health care; recreational and outdoor amenities; ample and affordable housing; and trusting relationships are all now at least as important as the right job. Prospective employees expect all these assets to be in place.

To adapt, we must think differently. We must understand that people live in or move to communities, not states or regions. Dozens of affiliated funds in the NCF network are already focused on a three-pronged strategy to make a difference. Those three elements are:

  1. Encouraging residents to give charitably to build local endowments: we co-own what we help to co-create. Endowments built collectively by the community for the community help all of us feel a greater sense of ownership and pride in our homeplace.
  2. Granting the payout from these endowments to improve education, health and wellness and quality-of-life amenities: to be a community of choice for people with options, we need money (endowment payout) to provide a margin-of-excellence to make our schools, medical services, libraries, and community and recreational amenities top notch.
  3. Inviting homegrown college students to build community with us: we must build and sustain trusting relationships. It is through those connections that positive change happens.

Many of our community-based affiliated funds host college students like Takaylynn each summer as part of Nebraska Community Foundation’s Hometown Interns program. These students already know their homeplace, have long-standing relationships and are in a wonderful position to share fresh perspectives on local assets and opportunities. They spend their summer uncovering and mapping the goodness in their hometown and sharing those discoveries with their affiliated fund and other community leaders.

Nebraska Community Foundation has now completed five years of this program. Our findings are powerful, with these three rising to the top:

  • All hometown interns express a new sense of appreciation for their family and other adults in their community who helped them have a wonderful childhood.
  • All express how surprised they were to discover so many assets so close to home. Examples include local creatives (artisans, musicians, woodworkers, quilters), small businesses, volunteer groups, community services, history, festivals, traditions, etc.
  • Many hometown interns express a greater desire to live and work in their hometown than when they started their internship.

NCF affiliated funds benefiting Ainsworth, Albion, Auburn, Chester, Columbus, Deshler, Diller, Hebron, Howells, McCook, Nebraska City, Norfolk, Ogallala, Red Cloud and West Point have all now hosted two or more Hometown Interns. And it’s making a difference. Takaylynn is among the growing number of interns who have said they plan on returning to Greater Nebraska after graduation. Some have already planted roots in their hometowns.

We need to customize our people attraction work for each young person, not a generation writ large. The Hometown Interns program is one version of that customized approach, encouraging young Nebraskans to see their homeplace with fresh eyes and use established relationships to ask authentic questions about what if and what’s possible. In other words, this work opens the door to intergenerational co‐creation, which is the secret sauce for any community to thrive and prosper.

There is no simple way to reverse the brain drain, but we can start by asking young Nebraskans this simple question: will you help us build a Greater Nebraska?

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