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Rural Talent Migration

One option for addressing talent shortages in rural America, which makes up about 90 percent of the country.
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A wheat harvest in Idaho. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

A wheat harvest in Idaho. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Rural America is dying. Rural America is in good company. Half of the countries of the world are experiencing demographic decline. The typical reaction is to plug the brain drain. That doesn't work. Also, such policies are anti-economic development. Restricting geographic mobility does more harm than good (if it does any good at all).

Some communities embrace attraction. Rural Kansas is dangling carrots in front of prospective residents. Such schemes have a poor track record. Luring immigrants, as Iowa has done, is more effective. But what happens if the source country of those immigrants also experiences demographic decline? Flows of migration can be fickle.

What to do? Focus on quality instead of quantity. Addressing a rural talent shortage:

A lawyer shortage, really? Well, yes, depending on where you live, and rural America is in some places apparently suffering a lawyer shortage right now, just as it has long been coping with a doctor shortage. Small town life is not selling with certain professions, and in distinct ways communities can be truly undermined by the absence of, say, doctors and lawyers and architects and so on.

South Dakota set out to solve this, its lawyer shortage, by literally offering cash incentives to attorneys, cash in the sense of subsidies, subsidized by the taxpayer, to come, live, and work in rural parts of the state. But is that working? And what else are communities trying to do to get professionals to come back?

Again, direct incentives offer a poor return on investment. I've learned that working with established talent flows is a best practice. Generating migration is hard. Redirecting migration is much easier. A target:

Simply retiring abroad has become old news, as people seek cheaper places to live and to slash health care costs while enjoying more temperate climes. But now enjoying a “working retirement,” like Ms. Wynne’s, appears to be gaining traction with expats, as it has in the United States.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an increasing number of retirees, who can expect to live longer, healthier lives, are choosing to work in retirement, at least part-time, typically for fear of outliving their money or to keep active and engaged.

Despite a dearth of hard numbers on American retirees abroad, the same seems to be true for them, to judge from the rising number of Social Security checks sent to Americans living in inexpensive retirement havens in Latin America and the Caribbean, and from much anecdotal evidence from expatriate retiree-entrepreneurs like Ms. Wynne and others.

What about the near abroad, rural America? Working retirees seeking small town life in Australia seem like excellent candidates for non-metro counties starved for talent. Expat life poses its own pitfalls. However, relatively inexpensive health care draws people out of country. Rural communities could band together and remove that push factor from the equation. They could help with health care costs or other financial burdens while addressing the shortcomings of life abroad. More lawyers and architects in the area will generate more demand for doctors. What about the dearth of doctors? Talk to your congressional representative about immigration reform.