Small Town Talent

Small towns are generally trying to figure out how to get and keep leadership, promote entrepreneurship, innovation, etc.   Yet, all their “talent” leaves town and never really comes back to stay.  No one really seems to ask why though, they just simply sit and wait for some new people to come by then pass the buck onto them, whoever they may be.  Those of us in that position get frustrated and, well, leave too. Why?

Perhaps one thing for people in these small towns to consider is how (un)reliable they are; this even extends into life in university for those who leave but then come back.  I say this regarding three entirely separate cases of small, rural towns that I have had to deal with and one consistent problem in all of them: communication.  More specifically, the lack thereof.

For example: trying to contact one single individual through email, text messages and phone calls and still never getting any response after several days; this sort of culture is the antithesis to accomplishing anything or trying to make improvements which then limits these small towns, leads to frustration and moving away.

Another example: many times, when trying to put on an event of any sort, there is complaints of not many people coming or only the same people coming.  One thing one never really sees online in any format or physically throughout the town is advertisements for different things.  How is a newcomer or someone outside of the usual circle to know that there is a benefit dinner happening this Friday if it is not actually announced?  I must say, it is pretty amazing how many people turn out for something if signs are put up everywhere a month in advance of the event, in my experience anyway.  Also, the internet is a thing; small towns could leverage that a lot more than they generally do.

Next, some personal responsibility would help a lot.  I mean this on an individual basis and a societal one for these small towns.  Instead of simply complaining about how “the state/federal government does not send us any money to do x.” Try using the internet to find some grants for the project or, as is the case for older farming communities, recognize that money you are sitting on will not follow you to the grave and maybe spend some of it.  In a less offensive word: recognize that in order to get something out of an investment, you usually have to put something into it too.  Spend some time working on making the community a place you want to live, it will probably help convince other people to live there too.  Also, maybe, just maybe, release some farm land for a new farmer to buy and use, perhaps consider that the world has changed even if it is not easily visible in these towns, it has.  People want different things in life now and have different expectations and different types of jobs: figure out how to welcome those types of things and people may follow.  Responsibility, if cultivated and supported for all citizens in the town would help, in all of these small towns there is a small cadre of movers-and-shakers who are, essentially, trying to drag the rest of the several hundreds or thousands along.  That much effort for so few gains leads to burn-out, but, many hands makes light work, if you would take responsibility for your own community and for answering your phone and then carrying out whatever task you agree to, these small towns could make leaps and bounds.

These are just two of the major areas I have seen in my experience of small towns, it has been two of my own personal issues too partially stemming from growing up in such an environment.  If small town leadership and small town individuals would start working on trying to improve these two spots, I think it would greatly improve their ability to get/keep younger people who are able to start changes and actually improving the region(s) they are in.  But, this would take a level of commitment to self-improvement across individuals and the town; something not generally supported anymore in these areas.

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Small Town Economics

As I spend more time in a small town and compare it to my experience(s) in cities and even just regions closer to larger population centers, I am starting to learn one of the primary problems in small towns: lack of competition.

I mean lack of competition in an individual sense.  There is no need for self-improvement or even, maintenance of quality in small towns for many positions just because there is no one else to take that place if it is an essential job.  For example: middle management of any business.  Once an individual gets into that sort of position in a business that stays stable within the community and can get comfortable, they really have no need to improve themselves or the business really.  No other business will likely move in due to it being prohibitively expensive to move in and start a new business and there are not many new candidates moving into town to cause competition in the field itself for promotions etc.  So, it becomes very easy to fall into a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude about everything.  This hurts small towns most when it comes to leadership.

Having dynamic leadership is one of the best ways to promote expansion, development and improvement I think, having managers/mayors who are always willing to try new things and help those below them become more capable.  Dynamic leadership happens when non-dynamic individuals filter down/are limited in their promotion abilities because of competition or cannot get into higher levels due to a lack of initiative.

A mayor and/or board which is not dynamic, not curious and willing to look into new ideas and not really in competition because of no one else running for those elected positions ends up leaving a town stagnant.  The stagnant individuals essentially create a ceiling of potential and end up pushing those with more initiative, abilities or curiosity out and away (this tends to be associated with the younger generation) which then means that there are fewer opportunities which leads to even more people leaving essentially filtering down to those with the least amount of dynamism or initiative so that those who stay end up being the people who get up, go to work, come back and just sit in front of the television and doing nothing really at all with their spare time and becoming unhealthy and disconnected.

The question then becomes, how can small towns reverse this cycle now that it has generally started?  The obvious solution is to get more people coming to promote competition but, they need to be able to have a viable life there, which is very hard to do since it seems that most of the possible work in small towns is either healthcare or construction related, with the latter requiring driving where it could be more efficient to simply live closer to the worksite.  Thanks to cars, small towns are not self-sufficient anymore with small stores employing small amounts of people in the town to service everything unless they have some major industry which has yet to move away or is not mobile.  The problem with those industries is that if they could move they probably already have at this point and those that are not mobile tend to be seasonal (agriculture, waterways, tourism).   Seasonality does not make for a stable life, especially without being able to get land for oneself either.  The other job industry growing right now is technology.  Technology requires infrastructure which, sometimes, does not exist in small towns or it is not up to the requirements of the technology yet.  The only way to improve that infrastructure though would be through an increase in funding which would only happen if, instead of shrinking and aging, the population of small towns was growing and younger.

We come back to, how does one stop this cycle?  It seems that the most effective way would be for leadership to recognize its own failures – something that only happens through competition.  Not to mention, recognizing the problems, which is another major issue for most of the small towns I have seen; they simply cannot recognize that there is a fixable problem that could benefit the town often because, no one wants to change at this point and everyone is afraid of dynamism.  People want the same things that have worked for their entire lives to apply in the exact same way to everyone else and then magically everything will be dandy.  Quite an interesting world those people live in so, next time you’re listening to a small-town friend of yours complain maybe just ask them, what have they done to help their small town besides simply existing in it?