Future of rural jobs panel discussion during the 2012 Farmer’s Union Convention
Drive down the highways of rural America, and it’s evident many small communities are suffering. Schools have closed, the lone cafe in town is barely making ends meet, and the residents are looking to better career opportunities in larger cities.
What’s the solution to maintaining thriving communities in rural America? This was the topic of an expert panel discussion featuring five of the state’s best leaders in the area.
The future of rural jobs in South Dakota was a hot topic at the 2012 South Dakota Farmer’s Union State Convention in Huron, SD on Feb. 18. Here’s a recap of the key points made in the discussion.
On the state’s job opportunities:
“We have spent decades telling our kids to get out of agriculture and find an easier way to make a living, and they have listened,” said John Farris, South Dakota Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. “It’s been clearly demonstrated that there are a lot of great career opportunities in agriculture for this state. You might be the doctor or lawyer who services the rural community, and there are also skilled positions in horticulture, agronomy and engineering. We struggle to fill the slots for employees in agriculture, and I think we have to start looking at the picture differently. Our kids are willing to work hard. Since when did working with your hands become a dishonorable thing to do?”
On maintaining vibrant communities:
“My job is to grow, create and establish opportunities for young people in small towns,” said Kathy Callies, Rural Learning Center interim vice president. “If all of us engage in our communities, you can start changing things. You can spend decades knowing a worse day is coming, or you can take an intentional plan to look at what we have, instead of concentrating on what we don’t have. This was the basis behind our wind energy technology in the area.”
On filling the growing job market in rural areas:
“As we come out of this economic crisis, we will face an immediate second crisis – not having enough people to do the work,” said Greg Von Wald, Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI) president. “For example, in Mitchell High School, we had 1,100 kids ten years ago; this year, it’s down to 800. We are going to face this shortfall, and it’s too late to do anything about it. We have to wait for the next generation to grow up. Small-town South Dakota will have to compete for skilled workers. How can we compete with larger cities? Instead of recruiting new companies, we must recruit more people to our states. To maintain the vibrancy of local communities, there needs to be an investment plan in place to enrich the lives of its members.”
On encouraging youth to pursue careers in-state:
“Looking at the statistics of our labor force, Dakota Roots, a program started in 2006, helps reconnect people back to South Dakota,” said Robin Wallum, South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation Huron office manager. “We also work with student internships, many subsidized through internships. We have discovered when employers give kids opportunities, there is a great chance of them staying and also continuing a relationship with the company, post-graduation. School loan debt is a huge factor these kids face, and we must work to make sure they are finding job opportunities in their field of study.”
On feeding the world:
“Wow! What an exciting time to be in agriculture,” said Jim Wahle, corn and soybean farmer from Salem, SD. “From surviving the 1980s to the record-high prices we are seeing today, it’s a great time to be in the field. The future looks very bright, which leads us to how can we attract future employees in the agriculture business? Today’s families have gotten a lot smaller, and I worry that we won’t have enough people to do the on-farm work coming through the system. Who will raise our food in the future?”
With a projected world population of 9 billion people by 2050, food requirements will need to double. The opportunities in agriculture are huge, but who will raise the food? Who will stay in rural America and get the job done? The solutions aren’t easy, but it’s a reality that needs to be faced.