Rural counties must reverse Millennial labor drain

by Dinita L. James

Hillbilly Elegy: Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the nonfiction best seller by J.D. Vance, 31, of Middletown, Ohio, with roots in the hills of Kentucky. He has gained renown since the November 2016 presidential election as a Donald Trump “voter-splainer,” a tribune of the white working poor.  Work and lifestyle crossroads concept

One thing that stood out was his report that the six groomsmen from his wedding all grew up in Ohio small towns, attended college at Ohio State University, found careers outside their hometowns, and had no interest in ever going back. Just as their parents had left their rural homes for jobs in cities and towns, Vance and his friends abandoned their hometowns for metropolises. Vance, a Yale-educated lawyer, lives in San Francisco and is a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He writes that he has all he ever wanted—going to work each day, taking his dogs to the park, buying groceries with his wife, and making a nice dinner.

Vance fits the classic profile of a Millennial, the predominant generation in the workforce today. The Millennial migration from Rust Belt Ohio he documents is also happening in Arizona, where I live and practice law, and a lot of other rural areas.

Bleeding Millennials

Millennials generally are regarded as the generation born between 1981 and 2000. They are 17 to 36 years old, a time when they should be approaching full engagement with work. Thus, a labor force that is bleeding Millennials isn’t a healthy labor force.

Arizona as a whole looks good, based on the most recent census data. Its population of Millennials grew by more than a quarter-million between 2000 and 2010, an increase of 15.3%. But, a closer analysis of that data reveals a deep divide between the state’s urban and rural counties.

Five of the most rural counties suffered double-digit declines in their Millennial populations over the decade. The numbers are stark. Here is the percentage of decline per county: Apache 24.6%; La Paz 20.6%; Gila 18.7%; Navajo 17.3%; and Greenlee 16.9%.

By contrast, three counties are outpacing the state. Leading is Pinal County, with a whopping 49.1% increase in Millennials from 2000 to 2010. Pinal encompasses the far southern and eastern suburbs of metropolitan Phoenix as well as the governmentand private-run prisons in the Florence area. The inmates get counted, so the gaudy percentage increase may not be as beneficial for Pinal County’s labor economy as it appears.

Also gaining Millennials at a greater rate than the state as a whole are Coconino County, up 21%, and economic and population behemoth Maricopa County, up 16.4%. Pinal, Coconino, and Maricopa counties contain nine of the state’s 10 largest cities and two of its three state universities. The county with the other large city and state university, Pima, trails the state only slightly, gaining 14.2% over the decade.

The message for employers is that no matter how Millennial-friendly you make your workplace policies, practices, and benefits, you will face a downward-spiraling talent drain if your workplace is somewhere the largest cohort of the labor force doesn’t want to live.

Yuma leading the way

Employers must work together with community and government leaders to encourage economic development of the kinds of businesses that attract Millennials. Yuma County may be a model worth emulating. Yuma employers long have complained about the difficulty of attracting and retaining workers. But the census data shows that is changing. Yuma experienced a net gain of Millennials of 13.9% over the 2000-2010 decade, only slightly behind the state as a whole.

What’s going on in Yuma these days? The county’s fertile fields have become an attraction for foodies and the businesses that feed them. Restaurants thrive and grow, buoyed by the importance of locally grown, sustainably produced food. Shops and bars have opened. Motels have spruced up and sprung up.

Once known as the armpit of Arizona, Yuma has worked to become the kind of place that Millennials want to visit and live, and employers are participating by opening their workplaces, aka fields, and engaging their workers, and especially Millennials, to make their communities the kind of places where they want to live.

Dinita L. James, a partner in the Arizona law firm Gonzalez Law, LLC. She may be contacted at dinita.james@gnzlaw.com.

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