One of the challenges facing most rural communities today is talent. This may be evidenced by a small labor pool, an aging labor pool, and/or one that is flat to declining. The first point that I would like to make is that these challenges are not unique to your community, region, or even state. Many places are in the same boat as you.

Even though talent challenges are complex and it can be difficult to determine where to begin, my work with dozens of rural economic development organizations (EDOs) has taught me some lessons that you can apply.

  • The first place to start is to determine what the driver or drivers of your particular talent challenge are, beyond the broad strokes of “not enough people.” Is the main driver that young people are leaving the area after high school? And if that’s the case, is that because they don’t realize what jobs are available and have no knowledge of manufacturing, or is it something else entirely? If you don’t know what problem you are solving, you will be unable to determine the correct solution.
  • Once you’ve defined the problem and its causes, then you can start developing solutions. I know that the good-meaning people on your board and in your community will want to start here, but solutions aren’t effective until the problem and its root causes are addressed. This is where your community partners – higher education, K-12, workforce development boards, and more – might come into the picture.
  • Track, adjust, and repeat. Once your first initiative is rolling, track its progress, and adjust as necessary. When you’re ready, start the process again to address another talent challenge.

Some tips:

  • Ask for input from area employers. This will give you a baseline for what the current and expected future job requirements are. Employer perspectives are very different than what you will get by talking to individuals themselves or the groups companies work with, such as workforce development boards and educational institutions.
  • Start with a bite-sized challenge, solve it, and then move on to the next one. Biting off more than you can chew will just set you and the community back, right at the time when you need to be building momentum.
  • Be strategic. The talent problems we face today weren’t created overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight. Be smart about how you’re going to address them rather than just throwing things until something sticks.
  • It’s not all about talent recruitment; in fact, it’s likely going to be about talent retention and development. Just like the business development side, the fact is that most of the talent your area will have in the future is going to grow out of what you already have rather than be recruited from some far-away place.

So, to complete the circle on why a talent recruitment website does not a talent strategy make: This is the most common knee-jerk response to a lack of workforce. Maybe it’s even worked in the past. But, if you’re an economic development practitioner in a community of 5,000 people with 100 open positions, I can tell you from experience that this is not going to work for you unless it is part of an overall talent strategy.

Need help determining what your talent strategy should be? Please contact us at 608.663.9218. My team and I are experts at seeing through the clutter and prescribing talent solutions. Last year, we released our Talent Toolbox for Economic Developers – a book that shares the stories of various economic developers from around the country who successfully implemented systematic plans to help them overcome their talent challenges. The book is a “toolbox” in the sense that it provides fresh ideas and insights that can be used by others facing similar situations to create meaningful, lasting change. For a copy of the book order form, click here.

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