The goal commonly stated by elected officials when they are running for office, or talking about improving the economy, is keeping young people in the community as they enter the workforce.
While they realize that young adults are going to likely move onto college out of the area, the hope is that they receive their education and return to Crook County and help it grow and thrive.
Unfortunately, that has proven to be a tall order not only locally but in rural communities throughout Oregon. A recent report compiled by several employment department analysts found that the bulk of the workforce in small communities is comprised of people near retirement age. And although younger people are taking the positions that retirement leaves behind, not many people from the younger generation are sticking around and taking new positions and contributing to true growth of the job market.
Part of the problem — highlighted by Central Oregon's regional economist Damon Runberg, who contributed to the extensive report — is that communities like Prineville relied for several decades on the wood products manufacturing industry, which thrived in the logging heyday. Now that the industry is a shell of its former self, and agriculture is likewise diminishing, young kids are left with the option of either choosing a profession that is far from recession-proof or moving to a more urban area where the job market is far more diverse. Can we really blame them?
But Runberg did go on to point out that Crook County has started down a path in recent years that could set them apart and make the local job market more attractive to young high school and college graduates. The introduction of two data centers introduced a new and growing industry to the area. While it doesn't create the same number of permanent jobs the wood products industry used to, he insists it doesn't have to. He instead believes it should be a small piece of a more diverse economy that offers multiple options — much like urban areas, but on a smaller scale. Instead of one industry offering the bulk of the jobs, multiple industries as a collective group would ideally provide the same amount of jobs but in several areas so that if one fails, there are still plenty of places to find employment.
Like many things, this will require a partnership throughout the community. Local leaders will need to continue to work with economic development staff to not only court new businesses, but figure out which ones have gone untapped that would make sense in Crook County. Perhaps the local school administrators could consider regular meetings with government officials to brainstorm industries that would benefit the community and come up with educational offerings at the high school and community college level that would train people to fill jobs in those fields.
Runberg concluded that despite the economic challenges rural communities face, the situation is not all doom and gloom. If young people are given enough job opportunities, they will stick around and contribute to the local economy. Let's work together and give them as many options as possible.