Voices of Digital Communities

Bringing the Kids Back Home - Part Two

At ICF, we really have just one mission.   We want to help communities to become or to remain places where the next generation ...

by / August 24, 2009
At ICF, we really have just one mission.   We want to help communities to become or to remain places where the next generation finds enough economic opportunity to stay and make a life there, if that's what they want.  If your community's biggest export is its youngest and most talented citizens, you are in a world of hurt.  And everything else that makes the life of your community meaningful - its history, culture and ways of life - will ultimately fade and fail.

For some Intelligent Communities, particularly ones with a troubled past, the question is not just how to keep the kids at home but how to bring back the ones who left.  There can be a positive side to losing your kids to the big bright world outside.  If they return, they may bring valuable skills and experience with them.  The well-known OneCommunity broadband network in Cleveland, Ohio exists because some talented people who grew up there decided to return to their roots and do something good for the community. 

On July 3, I wrote about the Return to Roots campaign (www.returntoroots.org) in Southwest Virginia, USA.  It reaches out to people who left the region and tries to lure them back.  Using money from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, RTR is basically a career center that connects people to local job openings in a place they would still like to call home. 

I recently wrote to RTR director Carl Mitchell to ask what kind of results the program had produced.  He was kind enough to send me their latest report.  To boil it down to its most basic, the program placed 9 people from outside the region into jobs in the region in the first six months of 2009.  Their salaries were worth an estimated US$446,000 per year.

Inspiring results?  Not at first glance.  But I changed my mind when I went through the wealth of information in Mr. Mitchell's report (click here for a copy in PDF format).  The RTR Web site has registered 2,900 potential job-seekers.  They have submitted more than 1,200 job applications for 420 jobs posted to the site by 632 employers.  In the six months since January, 168 job-seekers applied for 218 jobs.  Employers reviewed the resumes of 96 of them in order to hire the 9 people - but 27 others are still waiting for a hiring decision. 

When did anybody say it was easy to find a job?  In this economy?  More important than these numbers is the fact that, in the past 3 years, the RTR site has been visited by 76,000 people, of whom 10,000 have returned at least once to learn more.  Mr. Mitchell wants us to measure the success of Return to Roots in terms of awareness of the program, usage of the Web site by employers and job-seekers, and interest in Southwest Virginia.  I think those are the right measures.

After all, there's no hard economic value to bringing the kids back home.  In pure dollars-and-cents terms, it doesn't matter to the region if it attracts outsiders or former natives to job opportunities.  But it matters a lot to the history, culture and ways of life of the region.  Those are the things that make life meaningful in Southwest Virginia, and in your community, too. 

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.