Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: The one surprising thing you should do to make sure your youth come back

Michelle Madden / November 17, 2014

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The Higher ED Blog: The one surprising thing you should do to make sure your youth come back

Don’t kid yourself, your community will never retain 100 per cent of its youth (and it shouldn’t try to anyway). The process of youth outmigration isn’t new either; rural and remote areas across Canada have been losing young people in significant numbers since at least 1966. That said, communities are right to be concerned about a youth exodus. When they exit en masse, it’s enough to shrink the total population, close elementary and secondary schools, and leave businesses without labour to hire or succession plans.

As the Economic Development Officer for Kapuskasing, André Robichaud has seen the impact of youth out-migration. His Year 2 Economic Development Program paper on the topic found that in the period of highest outmigration, 1996-2001, northeastern Ontario lost 19 per cent of its 15-29 year olds. Fortunately, the rate of outmigration has dropped since then but it was and is still concerning enough to warrant research into youth motivations. He was determined to find out why youth leave and, more importantly, what might make them come back.

According to his sources, the most common reasons for youth outmigration in rural Canada are to find education and employment. The education piece is likely why 15-19 year olds are the most mobile cohort. Ontario is aiming for a 70% postsecondary attainment rate, and the jobs of today’s economy demand higher education, so youth are moving to communities with schools, many of which are in urban areas. Compounding the problem, youth often stay where they studied after graduation and highly educated people tend to prefer cities.  Regardless of education level, young people look for jobs with higher wages, specialization, and influence than rural areas can provide. Of course, youth have other reasons for leaving as well. Many expect that they will find a better quality of life elsewhere, and others follow the ‘lure of the big city’ for its excitement and opportunity.

The good news is that not all youth want to leave, and some of those that do leave can be convinced to return. One of the major reports André references is a study by Laurentian University, l’Université de Hearst and the Far Northeast Training Board (FNETB) called Youth and the North: A Path to Discover. It was a longitudinal study of high school students in northeastern Ontario, following them over the course of a decade. The study had surprising findings, including the fact that close to 50 per cent of the students wanted to live in the Cochrane/Kapuskasing region after their studies. That’s an encouraging statistic and a perspective that is often overlooked in the panic of youth retention planning. The question, then, is how do we convince the other 50 per cent to want that as well?

Here’s the big secret: youth who have a strong connection with their community tend to return.  Those youth who wanted to stay had a strong sense of community that came from having good family relationships and being actively engaged in the community. The youth who planned to leave had stronger ‘anti-north’ feelings and perceived that the area had no jobs for well-educated people. These feelings were entrenched by the time they entered high school.

If communities want to keep more of their young people, they will have to engage youth before, during, and after high school and find ways to instill positive feelings. There are communities in Canada and the US that are running with this idea and have effective and inspiring programs:

  • Kapuskasing, Ontario stays connected with students and recent grads through several channels. First, they keep a database of current and former youth and occasionally send information on employment opportunities, community events, and other news. The Town also works with employers to create meaningful summer jobs and internships, and it hosts an annual ‘Christmas Brunch with the Mayor’ where youth can network with community leaders and employers and learn about entrepreneurship supports. The goal is to overcome the perception that there are no good jobs.  Kapuskasing is also a partner in the Make Way for Youth project.  The regional project has hired a coordinator to promote and facilitate the integration of young postsecondary graduates in the Kapuskasing area.
  • Rawlins County, Kansas—population 2,500—has similar programming, including a database of alumni and an annual alumni banquet with hundreds of attendees. It also encourages entrepreneurship through an annual fair where middle and high school students develop and present business plans. Youth up to 30 years old can also join Rawlins’ Leadership Program and sit on city council or community boards. The county has noticed an improvement in communication between younger and older generations as a result. The success of the Leadership Program prompted the development of a forum to discuss issues important to youth.
  • Brookfield, Missouri is another small community that is embracing its youth. The city of 4,500 has a leadership program similar to Rawlins’, and has a special way to show high school graduates that the community cares. At the graduation ceremony, each student receives a personalized mailbox and a letter inside inviting them to always consider Brookfield home.

Programs like these show youth that home is a great place to be. For the half (based on NE Ontario’s experience) who are eager to leave, they may never become anti-north/rural/whatever if they’re reached early enough; or, when the city’s lustre is starting to wear off, they may be convinced that their hometown is where they want to raise a family of their own. The half that wanted to stay all along will be shown that meaningful employment and business opportunities are available and that they don’t need to be in the city to find good quality of life.

There’s no place like home.

There’s no place like home.

There’s no place like home…


About the paper’s author

André Robichaud is the Economic Development Officer at the Town of Kapuskasing, a community of 8,000 residents in Northern Ontario.  He was born and raised in Kapuskasing and left after high school to study in a large urban centre.  Like the vast majority, he left the small town and did not plan on returning.  He graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in health sciences.  He returned to Kapuskasing that same year and worked in the private sector.  He was then hired by the Town of Kapuskasing in 2009.  One of his responsibilities includes developing local and regional attraction and retention strategies for Kapuskasing and area.   He received his Ec.D in 2013, and subsequently his CEcD in 2014.  He is the author of “Young People Attraction & Retention in Northeastern Ontario: A Regional Strategy”.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

2 responses to “The Higher ED Blog: The one surprising thing you should do to make sure your youth come back”

  1. […] like local food, social media, community engagement, and inland ports. We challenged you to rethink how you attract and retain youth, the ROI of incubators, and chasing public consensus for community branding. We climbed the Ivory […]

  2. […] and prepared for adulthood is truly a community effort. This is even truer when attempting to motivate retention or return migration to the community, build a productive workforce, or foster a new generation of civic and community leaders. The path […]