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What about taking a page from election analysis and conducting surveys of Crook County workers

How is the Crook County economy doing these days?

Well, one could say there are signs everywhere. That is, of course, an exaggeration, but there are signs on Highway 126 between Prineville and Powell Butte that provide some insight — four to be exact. Their purpose, according to the people who hatched the idea to place them there, is to discourage Crook County residents from leaving town to go to work, to stick around town and fill the plentiful job openings in industries across the board that are right here at home.

Statistics provided by Kelsie Lucas, Crook County's Economic Development manager, are mind-boggling. About 3,000 workers stay in the community and around 2,000 commute into Crook County … but about 5,000 leave the county to punch the clock in Redmond and Bend. That's a 3,000-worker net loss! That's one-eighth of the entire county's overall population, let alone its workforce! It's no wonder that Lucas, Crook County Judge Seth Crawford and Chamber Director Kim Daniels wanted to take action.

It's certainly a departure from the Great Recession when the common refrain among elected leaders and those hoping to win an election was that Crook County needed to add more jobs. Back then, the community had an unemployment rate well into the teens and people couldn't find a place to work. Now, the employers have job openings they desperately need to fill, and they can't find workers to fill them. Crook County's most recent unemployment rate is less than 5%, which should be great news, especially after the community endured a pandemic that shut down businesses for months and caused the unemployment rate to spike. But the good news is soured by the lack of workforce.

The highway signs are a good start and will probably get a lot of attention, but could the campaign perhaps serve as the tip of the iceberg? What about taking a page from election analysis and conducting surveys of Crook County workers. Do you commute? If so, why? How aware are you of the jobs and industries available in your community? What would it take for you to consider a different job?

The data could help people in the economic development field get a better lay of the land. They could find out what the community does well, where it could improve and what people consider important when they are looking for work — because if 5,000 people are willing to drive 30-60 minutes one way for work, with gas prices approaching $5 a gallon, there must be some compelling reasons.

And could local educators get involved. Job fairs are plentiful throughout the school year at the middle and high school levels. Students are made aware of the many fields of employment available to them. The high school's career and technical education program is providing students with a host of unique skills that prepare them to enter the workforce.,

But do those students know what industries Crook County has to offer them? Do they know about the current worker shortage and where they could land an entry-level job? Sure, not every graduate is going to stick around town, but if students leave high school aware of what their hometown offers, perhaps they are more likely to either stay home or come back after completing the rest of their education.

Education and awareness is where the sign campaign has started, and it's a good idea. But it shouldn't be the only idea. Continuing to think outside the box and developing additional ways to reach current and upcoming workers will make a bigger dent and encourage more people to consider Crook County for their employment.

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