The following article first appeared in the February 5, 2015 Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with Editor Rob Callahan’s permission.
Something exciting is happening in and around Richland County! People are organizing, talking, meeting, and planning. They are making commitments to one another and challenging others to participate. Their purpose is simple. They seek to address their communities’ most pressing problems by “dreaming and doing together.”
“Southwest Partners” is developing a model of what needs to happen in other rural regions. Our rural populations are declining and aging. Our rural counties, towns, and communities find it increasingly difficult to maintain, let alone modernize, rural infrastructure. Our rural schools struggle to offer the array of opportunities children deserve. Our rural businesses are challenged by a lack of high-character, skilled talent.
My life has been spent in rural Midwestern communities. I know to the very root of my soul that there is only one solution to the challenges of the places I so deeply love and call “home.” We need regional leadership, engagement, collaboration, and collective action. The folks in and around Richland County seem to have found their version of this very thing.
What I see gaining momentum is this. A group of dedicated, talented, and persistent religious, community, business, and education leaders are bringing people together from across the area. Those people are talking and engaging a growing group of citizens in discussion aimed at action. That action will be to find ways that they as individuals, communities, churches, schools, and companies can put aside their differences and competitions so as to pool and mobilize their resources and talent for the purpose of creating a better “now” as well as a better future. Southwest Partner’s stated desire is “to create a healthy forward thinking culture for attracting, retaining, and nurturing people and their dreams.”
The first problem Southwest Partners is tackling is the problem of how to retain youth. As community leaders talked to regional citizens, they heard concern about the number of young people who leave for an education, a job, and a career in distant communities. A common complaint was, “There are no jobs for young people here.”
Those same community leaders then went to area companies and asked why there were no jobs. To their amazement, they learned that the area’s major employers are currently offering numerous good, well-paying jobs; jobs that can lead to long-term, rewarding careers. A common complaint was, “There are not enough conscientious, skilled people here to hire.”
What explains the mismatch? I cannot speak to all the specific reasons for Richland County and its neighboring communities, but I know of at least three that plague all rural communities.
First, there is a lack of knowledge in our communities about the businesses, jobs, and careers that exist just down the road. Second, we rural folks tend to hold and transmit to young people, particularly the “best and brightest” among them, a prejudicial suggestion that their best possible future exists somewhere else.
Third, the incentive and reward system that drives rural Wisconsin schools is misaligned. It rewards school-to-school competition over collaboration. It incentivizes investment in the core curriculum aimed at university study and distant professions rather than in career and technical education aimed at local jobs and careers.
These three phenomena, and perhaps others, have resulted in rural communities investing in education and career pathways that tend to lead young people out of our communities and under-investing in those career and technical education pathways that are tied to local workforce needs and career options. These latter pathways are the best preparation for 50-60% of the jobs and careers that actually exist in our communities and across Wisconsin.
What is truly exciting about the conversation in and around Richland County is that people are engaging with one another across communities, organizations, school districts, and businesses. They soon will be implementing solutions designed to overcome barriers as well as to expand, strengthen, and support more robust career and technical education opportunities for youth in and around Richland County.
Success will reward multiple stakeholders. Local employers will see more local talent. Communities will retain more young people. But most importantly, better opportunities will be created for those youth who simply do not want to follow the “prepare for university, get a bachelor’s degree, and work elsewhere” model. Southwest Partners seeks to create better options and hope for those young people, whatever their ability and talent level, who want a hometown future.
Southwest Wisconsin Technical College colleagues and I have been privileged to be part of the conversation. I have pledged Southwest Tech’s help and am prepared to invest College resources in support of whatever plans emerge.
The future of rural communities hinges upon the ability of regional citizens to therein create vibrant pathways and opportunities that help to increase the percentage of our sons and daughters to stay and prosper. In and around Richland County folks are choosing not to stand by, but to stand up and take action.