The Silver Tsunami in the Rust Belt Equals Great Opportunity

What I am Listening to: The Briefing by Dr. Albert Mohler

What I am Reading: Not God Enough by J.D. Greear

What I am Watching: NCAA Tournament Basketball….sans the Tarheels 😊


The Silver Tsunami in the Rest Belt Equals Great Opportunity

By Andy Kuhn, Executive Director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority

In my former life, I was an assistant to the Board of Commissioners in Wake County, NC (Raleigh). The conversations surrounding affordable housing, transit oriented development, wrap-around social services were pretty much the norm. In many cases those same conversations were authored by persons of varying ages, race, ethnicity, and creed. The melting pot that is the Triangle is alive and well in local government. Fast forward to where I sit today…………

Currently, I am the economic development director for a small Southeastern Ohio County (Washington County) back in a town (Marietta) I once called home. Having never been one to chase money and power, but an opportunity to serve greatly (like most of you reading this I am sure), I opted to leave the education and resource rich Triangle, and venture back to a community with a huge heart, excellent amenities but an overall declining population, limited funding streams due to shrinking tax base, and an ethnic demography that is pretty much homogeneous. (see graphic) I like many before me fled the big city and took the job back home, all in hopes of making the future better for some of the people I care most about, in a town that gave me so much.

While I was prepared to be without great Thai food, a bevy of local breweries, eateries open past 10pm, and to walk into rooms that are all but white-washed ethnically, I was not prepared to walk into a room that wasn’t only white washed but one where I was one of the few that wasn’t in the final weeks/months of their career. While the concept of ethnic homogeneity scared me from a community perspective, the impending Gray Tsunami and the community’s ability to react to it has kept me awake at night.

Our community is one of hundreds, if not thousands across the United States that simply do not have the talent in place to keep their operations running when the boomers transition out, and we cannot act fast enough.

A multitude of factors has led us to this place. Urban and suburban flight during the mid-2000’s recession, dwindling economic opportunity in our own markets, efficiency improvements in manufacturing and service delivery, and host of other issues put us in the position to replace significant amounts of the workforce in the near future, and those replacements simply aren’t there.

As our county nears full employment by statistical measures, we in non-urban manufacturing intensive communities are trying to grapple with the reality that the workers who have helped buoy our community for decades are headed for retirement, and we can’t train workers or attract workers fast enough to keep the train moving. This reality befalls us in our trades, our white-collar workers, and in the government sector. In communities all around me the 70+ year old mayor, city staff in their mid-60’s, and the retiree political candidates who haven’t worked in over 15 years is the norm.

So why am I writing this post for ELGL morning buzz? The answer to that is twofold: 1.) Selfishly I want more qualified, educated professionals to join me in Southeast Ohio to help promote data driven decision making and become an agent for progressive community management and 2.) Opportunity exists everywhere, and for a long time I looked in the wrong places for a chance to take part in something great.

In my mind the people who read these posts are just like I used to be. Aspiring local government workers, toiling in their cubicles, seeking an opportunity to do something great, but often find themselves in government largesse doing menial tasks with hand-offs galore, rarely seeing its effect on the citizenry. (If you aren’t this person, consider yourself #blessed)

If you are this person and have developed carpal tunnel from typing so many pain letters to HR managers in cities you think have better coffee culture and whiskey bars, consider for a moment the chance to make major impacts in communities that desperately need you. Countless communities are in dire need of new ideas and more importantly the youthful energy to make things happen. For the go-getter who is seeking a chance to put that MPA or MPP to work, the non-urban centers of the Midwest may well be the land of milk and honey.

I could write for days about the virtues of shunning the city life and migrating to markets where seemingly everything is cheaper and easier, but that is something completely subjective and isn’t easily captured in a morning buzz. However I can point some of you in the right direction should you be toying with the thought of going rural with your career.

So where do you look for this milk and honey should you be interested? Unfortunately, for those who are of the greatest need, their ability to articulate their need to the world is quite limited. Welcome to life in the hinterlands. While you might find the occasional posting on Monster or Indeed, you are more likely to find available jobs via the larger service apparatuses offered via the land grant universities, agricultural extensions, and even your department of highways. I never would have imagined this when living in Raleigh, but in rural communities where access is at a premium it is your highway department that ultimately drives development because if you create access, you develop new markets (I took transport for granted when I was surrounded by so much of it).

If you want to see what’s on the other side of the rural/urban divide, you need to meet the rural where it resides digitally, and that is via a larger system that seeks to support countless other communities. Here in Ohio a bevy of services are offered via the Ohio State University Extension office, and just recently I found a neighboring community looking for a community development director. Should you want to broaden your search take some time to add state personnel departments to your list and local extension agencies. Thinking rural means seeking to identify rural issues and ask who is seeking to serve those groups. If you scour newspapers from rural communities you will likely see many issues that pertain to infrastructure and utilities management. Identifying the people and groups who are seeking to address those issues gives you an immediate contact and more importantly a chance to offer some help, which is the greatest resume builder of all, project experience.

As I have illustrated the needs are great and the people are few. Over the coming years the number of people serving and being served is projected to dwindle, but the challenges will not. Come join the countless other public servants who willingly take on way more than they ever dreamed, in hopes of doing something great for the great people so often labeled and seldom understood.