KC Belitz: Home sweet home: Let’s work to help bring graduates back to our communities

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

‘Tis the season . . . for graduation. This season is an annual reminder of the need for all of us to invite young people stay or return to their hometowns in greater Nebraska. Clearly, we shouldn’t wait until graduation day to make that invitation, but it should certainly be a goal of every one of us that no Nebraska child leaves high school without being invited home multiple times.

The need has never been clearer. There are stories everyday about workforce shortages in Nebraska. Everything from restaurants and retail to manufacturing and construction are all short of talent in Nebraska. The unfortunate fact is that every one of those unfilled jobs is a lost opportunity for the person, for the employer and for the community. The good news is that the opportunity doesn’t need to be lost forever.

I would go a little further and say, in fact, the stage is set for us to grab those opportunities at a higher rate than we’ve experienced in Nebraska in our lifetimes. What are the factors that lead me to that conclusion? I’ll just give you three (there are plenty more):

Today’s youth will want what we have. As I’ve mentioned before, the Nebraska Community Foundation survey of Nebraska high school students shows clearly that many of them want to live in a small town, including their own hometown. But they need to be invited!

We can work from anywhere. There are fewer and fewer jobs that can’t be “taken with you,” allowing people to live where they want and do the job they love. To this point, the biggest barrier identified in the NCF youth survey was finding the job they wanted in their hometown—but that barrier is coming down for many professions.

It’s not just the Centennial Generation. Data from across the country also shows a trend toward living in smaller, more secure places with great schools, caring neighbors and invitations to get engaged. Sound like our hometowns in Nebraska?

If you don’t think your invitation can make a difference, let me remind you of the story of Dakota Cherney. Dakota was an NCF Hometown Intern last summer in Hebron (and he’s back this year!). During that experience, he wrote in his hometown newspaper that he’d never been invited back while he was in high school. After that column was published, more than 30 of his neighbors reached out to encourage him to make his future in Thayer County. As a result of those invitations and his experience as an intern, his plans now include not just coming home after graduation but starting his own business!

Dakota’s advice to us is straight-forward: “Reach out and specifically tell the youth in your area and your school system you want them back here, and that each and every one of them is valued.”

So as you attend graduations or the celebrations that follow, be intentional about inviting these graduates home. Let’s make sure no Nebraska high school graduate leaves town without knowing we want them back . . . because, make no mistake, we need their talents, skills, engagement and ideas to build the future we want in greater Nebraska!

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