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Not hiring: young adults struggle to find work in Rural Utah.

After serving in the U.S. Army for several years, Gino* moved his young family to Monticello--the small town he grew up in. "I moved home to raise my family. I want my children to have the same opportunities that I had--the small-town life," Gino says. "People watch out for each other here. They teach kids proper values that can get lost. And I want them to have the outdoors life."

With a background in IT, Gino wasn't worried about finding stable employment, but since moving back to Monticello six months ago, he hasn't been able to find work. "I'm looking for anything--mostly IT jobs but even manual labor jobs-- anything to keep us going until I can find something," he says.

Like Gino, many young adults wish to stay in the small hometown they grew up in. But, also like Gino, many young adults struggle to find long-term, life-sustaining employment in rural towns.

Young adults have long experienced higher unemployment rates than the average population. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the national young adult unemployment rate was 14.3 percent in July 2014--much higher than the national average of 5.8 percent. Throw in the fact that rural areas also traditionally experience higher unemployment rates than urban and suburban areas, coupled with the reality that many rural areas are still reeling from the Great Recession, and the prospects of a young adult finding quality employment in a rural town becomes slim.

Job Loss Cycle

Utah's rural areas were hit hard during the Great Recession-- much harder than the rest of the state. Many rural towns are still staggering from the impact. Finding life-sustaining employment has become difficult in many areas, especially for young adults who lack experience and connections.

Because work is difficult to find, many rural regions are experiencing an increase in out-migration among their young adult population. Several counties experienced notable population decline in recent years due to out-migration, including Carbon, Emery, Millard, Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne and Garfield counties, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS).

While it may seem as though a decreasing population would lessen competition for employment opportunities, Lecia Langston, regional economist at DWS, says out-migration leads to a lack of workforce critical mass, which is often the culprit behind stymied economic growth in rural areas. "A company can't move here if they can't find workers," she says. The lack of workers dissuades companies from locating in the area, which leads to fewer job opportunities, which leads to out-migration, which leads to fewer workers.

A lack of industrial diversity is another important part of the employment picture. "Even during the good times, there's the nature of the labor market in these areas that is missing [industrial] diversity," Langston says. "There's not as many opportunities in Piute or Beaver, for example, as there are in Salt Lake."

Tyson Smith, regional economist at DWS, agrees. "There are some industries that are underrepresented in these regions, the most of which are in professional and business services and manufacturing. Professional and business services occupations pay very well, but the majority of firms are located in more densely populated metropolitans," he says. "Opportunities [in many industries] are restricted by the size of the population and the lack of diversity in these economies."

A Vicious Circle

The lack of workforce critical mass coupled with missing industrial diversity makes rural areas unattractive to businesses looking for a long-term location. But when a company decides to open up shop in a rural area, the impact is far-reaching.

The Uintah Basin is a shining example of rural employment growth due to expansion in the oil and gas industry. "Many of the jobs in the oil and gas industry require a high school diploma or less and have inexperienced wages that are estimated to be between $2 and $10 above the area average inexperienced wage of $9.60," says Smith.

Uintah Basin's economic success is in many ways an anomaly when compared to most of rural Utah, though there have been instances of companies moving into an area and positively impacting the local economy. Emery Refinery, for example, is constructing a facility in Emery County, which will add 125 jobs to the area. And Syberjet Aircraft opened an assembly plant in Cedar City, which will bring several high-paying jobs to the area and impact nearby rural towns.

Smith says business investment in a community--like Emery Refinery and Syberjet's expansions--can be crucial to a rural economy. "There is a ripple effect as these companies are accompanied by support industries and, hopefully, population growth," he says. "In many cases these industries provide good-paying jobs for middle-income families or those workers without higher education. The increase in wages circulates throughout the economy, which drives economic growth even further."

But just as these companies can positively impact their communities when they open, the negative repercussions are just as strong when they close their doors. "In Wayne County, their largest employer, Aspen Hills, closed a few years ago and they're still struggling," Langston says. "That company was a big employer, so it really affected the jobs and economy. They're still hurting."

Targeted Job Hunt

Regardless of whether economic conditions are good or bad, finding work in a small town can be tough, especially for those lacking targeted education. Russell Goodrich, associate vice chancellor at USU Eastern, advises students living in rural areas on how to find employment opportunities.

His primary advice: "Students need to be familiar with the industries that are there and obtain the skill sets that are needed. Employment opportunities are there, but you have to target them. In Carbon and Emery there's manufacturing. So for students with tech, manufacturing, electronics, drafting and design education, there are opportunities. In Grand County, travel and tourism is a much more dominant industry."

Smith agrees, noting young adults should pay close attention to the area's natural assets. "Employment in the Southeast region is driven disproportionately by the leisure and hospitality industry, which provides opportunities for young adults in recreation and tourism," he says. "Being a river guide requires training and certification, but many of these positions are filled by young, active workers."

Government and education provide many jobs in rural counties but the competition is stiff. "Turnover and growth prospects in K-12 education aren't robust with about 20 total job openings per year in Uintah Basin, Castle Country and Southeast combined," says Smith.

On top of scarce job opportunities, low wages are another reality that young workers frequently face. In many areas, wages are stagnant or declining. In Carbon and Emery counties, for example, total wages dropped 3.5 percent during 2013, according to DWS.

The good news is cost of living is generally lower in rural areas, notes Langston. "You can live on less in a rural area," she says. "There are good jobs. But students need to be aware that they might not make much."

Lisa Laird, Snow College's career services manager, says in addition to targeting specific industries in one's community, students seeking to live in rural areas should also take business courses. "In rural Utah, sometimes the career you have is the one you create for yourself after gaining work experience with someone else," she says.

Starting his own small business is just what Monticello's Gino is planning to do if he can't find stable employment soon. "In a small town, you have to make the opportunity," he says.

* Gino requested we only use his first name.

Rural Utah

Employment Snapshot

Bear River Region: Rich, Box Elder, Logan

** 3.3 percent job growth rate

** Largest industries: manufacturing and government

** The average annual wage for manufacturing employees was $42,667, which is $11,347 more than Bear River's average

Castle Country: Emery, Carbon

** 4.7 percent unemployment

** Largest industries: trade/transportation/utilities and government

** The declining coal mining industry has hindered the economy and led to a 1.5 percent decrease in nonfarm employment

Central: Millard, Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne

* Largest industries: agriculture and government

* Jobless rates have consistently declined for all counties except Wayne County

** Most counties experienced net out-migration during 2013

Southwest: Beaver, Iron, Garfield, Washington, Kane

** All counties experienced expanding employment and declining jobless rates during 2013

** Largest industries: leisure/hospitality and government

** All counties, except Washington, experienced net out-migration during 2013

Southeast: Grand, San Juan

* 6.4 percent unemployment

** Largest industries: leisure/ hospitality and government

** The services providing sector was up 1.6 percent in 2013, and construction, manufacturing, and health and social services also grew

Source: Utah Counties in Review, July 2014 report by Utah Department of Workforce Services
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Title Annotation:Focus
Comment:Not hiring: young adults struggle to find work in Rural Utah.(Focus)
Author:Francom, Sarah Ryther
Publication:Utah Business
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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