KC Belitz: Getting youth to stay local

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

In our last column we shared the good news that Nebraska high school youth are interested in a whole lot of what Greater Nebraska has to offer. But, as promised, today we’ll dive into what Nebraska communities can and should be doing now to take advantage of this receptive audience.

This information comes from Nebraska Community Foundation’s 2021 Nebraska Youth Survey done in partnership with UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

By way of a quick reminder, remember that we learned that 64% of students surveyed said their ideal community would have a small population like their hometowns. Only 24% say there’s a negative stigma with returning or staying in their hometown. And this came from more than 1,000 high school students from all across Nebraska.

So what work should follow this excellent “market research” for Nebraska communities? We see two clear calls to action in these results.

While the negative stigma of returning home is less, there are other reasons identified in the survey that these young Nebraskans may choose to relocate. Honestly, the ONLY barrier to coming/staying home that any significant number of these students identified was their perception that their career opportunity would be elsewhere. Many of them thought those opportunities are lacking in their home places.

That means the first call to action is exposing these students to local careers. This means getting students into local workplaces, employers into classrooms and finding other innovative ways to make students aware of the myriad of jobs they can now do in Nebraska hometowns. Internships are an obvious tool and NCF and businesses are pursuing rapid expansion of internships in Nebraska. By the way, Columbus is doing as good a job as anyone on this one through partnerships between local schools and the Columbus Area Chamber’s Drive for Five.

Our second call to action comes from this set of data points: 71% say they get together with others to do something positive in their community; 67% say they are invited to share their opinions on community issues; 78% say they feel connected to their hometown; BUT only 25% say they play a role in their community. We know this generation wants to make a difference in their place and they will find those places to live and work.

So communities can increase their attractiveness to these students by going beyond just listening to youth or just keeping them busy. Instead, listen and then ACT on what you’ve heard. Even better, give the youth the lead on making and implementing those decisions.

Dr. Josie Schafer at UNO says it this way: “ . . . investments made now to deepen the connections between students and their hometowns may impact future likelihood to embrace their hometowns.”

NCF, UNO and our partner communities are proud to have provided this tool to Nebraska hometowns who want to be attractive to the “centennial generation.” The tool is only helpful if it gets used, so we hope you’ll heed those calls to action and get your community moving on those items.

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