Brain Drain in the North Country

Today, the Watertown Daily Times has published a story on “Brain Drain” in the North Country. Personally, I am pleased that the Daily Times has contributed to the discussion on this issue, though I am disappointed in both the Daily Times and the event that they discuss. Please note that a password is required to read the article, so I will summarize it below.

The event was a roundtable discussion “among a group of state officials and local business and school leaders” at a job fair that over 1,000 high school students attended. The discussion centered on the job market and how to make high-paying jobs available to young people from within the area. In general the problem was blamed on issues beyond their control, the usual litany of: “a cold climate, high state taxes and a global economy that sends jobs overseas to places like China, where labor is much cheaper.” The final result was to suggest that Jefferson Community College (JCC) create more internships linking students with local businesses.

Like I said above, I am pleased to see that the folks in Jefferson County are at least thinking about the problem, but it seems to me that they’re getting their priorities screwed up and simply repeating what a hundred other roundtables, editorials and panelists have said.

To begin with, the most incredible part of their meeting is that while they were discussing young people, why they leave and how to keep them in the area, they did not seem to invite a single young person to join their discussion. They have no good excuse for this, being surrounded by over 1,000 of them, except that perhaps they really don’t care what young people think about the issue. Is something wrong here? Without the presence of thoughtful young people around the table, the group came the same assumption that all similar round-tables come to: high paying jobs.

I will agree that the community has to provide something besides $6/hour work, and I feel that this is a question of human decency over anything else, have you ever tried to live on $6 an hour? But young people need more than this, we need a place to grow, to create and, as corny as it sounds, to dream. If a cold climate was the source of Watertown’s misery, no-one would have settled there to begin with and if they did they would have left long ago (this is true for all of our region). By once again quoting high state taxes and the threat of China, though they also may have some weight, is in effect for the community to throw its hand in the air and deny responsibility. Is this what we elect leaders for?

Mr. John B. Johnson, the editor of the Daily Times itself, is quoted as saying: “young people do not want to live here, you can’t even get a cup of coffee from Starbucks here.” In some ways, he’s hitting on something here. If our communities actually want to retain their youth, youth culture must flourish. I do think though, that Mr. Johnson is voicing his own Starbucks gripe more than that of the younger generation.

What we want are things to do at night, places to go and a chance to express ourselves. Just as we would be terrible setting up the agenda for activities at the Senior Center, so would people like Mr. Johnson at organizing youth culture. This is something youths must do, though the local power structure can stand in the way or help. Our community leaders can provide venues for youth entertainment (knowing full well that they probably won’t enjoy the music themselves) and set up opportunities for local musicians and artists to flourish. In Binghamton, a project is in the works to build a community media center where everyone could utilize the tools for making television shows and films. This is an excellent idea, what if every town had well-publicized public-owned resources for citizens, especially young people, to make television shows, films, record music and publish works, etc? Why should only communities with colleges have access to these resources?

Likewise, the community must help its young people not only to find decent paying jobs in the area, but also to follow their own dreams. Mico-loans to help small businesses and cooperatives run by young people could be set up. For example, I know a young man here in Johnson City who runs his own business building stereos and selling them on Ebay. There is no community resource to help him in this endeavor as a young person. What if there were small loans to give him the leg up on new technology or liaisons to help connect him to local stores that might like to sell his custom work? My friend is not looking for some six-figure salary, but a chance to do his work and play in a venue with his band without having the police harass them constantly. He is an artist and an entrepreneur and the community has turned its back on him.

The Watertown Daily Times and the roundtable discussion in Jefferson County have done nothing to truly confront the very real problem of youth flight. Yes, it is good that they are talking about it, but until they actually start to talk to young people, until they understand that it’s not just snow and jobs going to China that are the problems, they will continue to see our young people flee the northlands for places to the south.

Thanks to Todd for pointing out this article.

Posted by Jesse


joe said...

dream on dream on, i need a place to dream, jesse.

Vincent Magnum said...

I am leaving the North Counrty because I can't hold as many lawn/garage sales as I want.