MORRIS – The start of the eighth annual Grundy County Growth Conference on Friday focused on engaging the county’s youth to keep or bring them back to the community once they are adults.
The growth conference is hosted by the Community Foundation of Grundy County with the help of numerous sponsors. This year’s theme was “Schools, Business, and Community: Meeting Today’s Needs and Building a Pipeline for Tomorrow’s Workforce.”
The idea came from the Grundy Economic Development Council, said Julie Buck, executive director of the foundation.
“Business and industry is saying, ‘We can’t find ready workers,’ and the youth in Grundy County thinks there are no jobs in the county. And with the changing workforce that you don’t need a four-year degree like before ... the GEDC had the idea to bring business, schools and community together to [work on] engaging our youth,” Buck said.
About 50 people were present for the first session with speaker Craig Schroeder, director of Youth Development for the Center of Rural Entrepreneurship.
Schroeder shared a “Youth Engagement System” with the audience, which includes inviting, engaging, equipping and supporting youth to make them a part of the ongoing community.
“Youth retention is a negative term,” he said. “It implies a want to hold you back. You want to talk about attraction, not retention.”
The way to attract youth to stay in their communities to work and live is to provide them opportunities early on, Schroeder said.
A survey of more than 40,000 youths across the country found that when young people are asked if they would return home, versus being asked if they would return home if there were good economical opportunities for them, the “yes” answers increase significantly.
“Young people are the greatest resource for community revival and stabilization,” he said.
The steps of the engagement system include entrepreneurial education and career development; youth involvement and leadership in community; and community support of youth and enterprises.
The key is not to do what you think the kids of your community want, but to involve them in the discussion. A common thought is to open a teen center, but did the teens ask for this? Schroeder instead suggested asking youth what they like to do – and then the community work to support that.
If they like to bowl, for instance, he recommended working with a local bowling alley owner to make their facility more friendly to young adults.
He gave an example of a rural community in Nebraska whose economic director came to the school to talk to the students about entrepreneurship and how everyday items they use were invented or made better by an entrepreneur.
The director then gave the students two weeks to come up with their own idea to show off at a Young Entrepreneur Fair.
During those two weeks, a local radio station recorded public service announcements with each kid on his or her idea, and played them on the station. The fair ended up attracting 3,000 people who wanted to see their local students’ work.
Members in the audience of the growth conference Friday included school administrators, municipal leaders and industry members.
Grundy County Board member Teryl Lundeen said Schroeder’s ideas were something the Grundy community could move forward with.
“I believe in what he is saying wholeheartedly,” she said. “You have to believe in your community for the kids to come back here.”
Entrepreneurial opportunities have to be supported locally, she said, so the youth knows they have a place to execute their ideas.
The growth conference featured other speakers and included a panel discussion on the community’s summer intern program.