Monday, July 29, 2019

Solving outmigration from rural America is anything but simple

When we think about the future economic vitality of rural spaces, what often comes to mind? We think about the shortage of skilled labor, of course, plumbers, electricians, and the like. Do we often think about the need for doctors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers? This answer is going to depend upon who you ask and what they have been exposed to. The Bangor Daily News recently featured an article by a seasonal Maine resident that posited that rural Maine needs more tradesmen in order to secure its future vitality.

The article starts off by noting a demographic trend that has become all too common, the local high school experiencing a decline in enrollment. My own high school experienced a similar fate and was recently closed as a result. The author thinks however that students are being pushed too heavily into the college prep curriculum, which he says leads to students leaving because those jobs are often not found in rural Maine. He instead says that students should be pushed into vocational studies because there is a pressing need for tradesmen in rural Maine, an idea that he says that "too few are discussing."

I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint.

As anyone who reads my writing knows, there is a pressing lawyer shortage in rural Maine. I wrote about the numbers behind this shortage in a recent Maine Law Review article (link forthcoming). The University of Maine has even launched a rural lawyer initiative to help solve this shortage. Others have written about Maine's doctor shortage, a professor at the University of New England even wrote about the possibility that physician assistants, which UNE trains, can help to alleviate this shortage. There is also nursing shortage in rural Maine, which the University of Maine has pledged to work to solve by increasing its enrollment of nurses over the coming years. School districts in rural Maine are having difficulty filling teaching positions, often in subjects such as math, science, and special education. The social worker shortage in rural Maine has also been a topic of conversation for years. There is a dire need for people to fill positions in rural Maine that require at least a bachelor's degree.

In my opinion, the author is trying to falsely equate correlation to causation. The causes behind outmigration are multifaceted. For example, many high achievers are pushed to leave. A 2016 study of the phenomena zeroed in on Aroostook County, Maine and found that students often do not return home because of societal attitudes towards doing so. The book Hollowing Out the Middle, written by sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in 2010, did a great job of describing how high achievers in rural spaces are often driven away by adults who feel that they can "do better." Working to change people's attitudes about home would go a long way towards helping to solve this problem. Increasing the number of students that are pushed into a vocational curriculum would do little. Students need to be pushed into the college prep curriculum because these communities need college educated professionals to fill critical health care, legal, and social needs.

The author of this piece draws an overly simplistic false dichotomy to describe how to solve the problem of outmigration. This problem is anything but simple and shuffling kids into vocational programs won't stop the bleeding.

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