Writer: Margaret Blanchard
In rural areas of Georgia, like Grady County, losing young adults to schools and jobs in other cities and states can break the succession of community leaders, which is vital to future success.
As an initial PROPEL (Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership) community, Grady County surveyed students at Cairo High School to find out what young people would like to see in their hometown, how much they knew about job opportunities in the area, and if they planned on staying close to home after graduation.
The results were helpful to Whitney Brannen, the school’s work-based learning coordinator, and will shape how she approaches her job. Brannen is a former team member of the University of Georgia’s Archway Partnership.
“I was really surprised at the number of students who didn’t know what they wanted to do after school and if they wanted to leave or stay,” Brannen said. “It’s an opportunity for the community to take a look at that and say, ‘Hey, Jane Doe doesn’t know what she wants to do, but she has an interest in this, so why don’t we bring her into our job and let her see what we have here?’”
Job shadowing is just one idea to come out of the information-gathering process for the southwestern Georgia county. The community is also planning to highlight existing career pathways and invite students to industry roundtables where local businesses gather and network.
Launched in spring 2022 by the University of Georgia’s Vinson Institute of Government, PROPEL provides rural communities with resources to create systems necessary to support their own economic and workforce development strategies.
The two-year program is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant; it also received a $250,000 gift from the UGA Foundation in the spring.
“Brain drain” isn’t a new problem for rural communities participating in PROPEL. But survey results from high school students in Grady County indicate the problem may be due to a lack of awareness rather than discontent with the rural lifestyle.
“Most people think the only job opportunities we have here are working for a restaurant — specifically a chicken restaurant — and that’s not the case,” Brannen said, pointing out nearby industries such as the 240-acre Monrovia plant nursery, JTEKT’s Koyo Bearing factory and Nivel Manufacturing, which makes materials for all-terrain vehicles.
“It’s insightful for us to see what students think and how we can push past perceptions they might have because they’re the next generation that we want to live, work, play and spend their dollars here. You want to try to broaden the horizons of their opportunities,” she said.
Doing so has a lot to do with bringing people together and listening to what they need and want, said Saralyn Stafford, rural development manager for the Vinson Institute, who has spent her career helping Georgians envision stronger communities.
“If you get good community participation, it allows those who are responsible for developing and implementing the plan to know that they will have some support for the efforts underway,” Stafford said.
Grady County also conducted quality-of-life surveys by posting links on social media and via QR codes at area businesses. The results revealed that more than 50% of respondents consider the county’s people and opportunity for growth its biggest assets.
That’s good news to Shelly Searcy, who as the city’s tourism assistant is charged with showcasing the positive aspects of her hometown. The data supports what she hears in the community.
“The residents who want events to happen and who are willing to do them don’t really know the process and how to get them done. And so, one of the things that I’ve been working on is mostly just helping those things happen,” she said.