Opinions of Maine youth central to project aimed at helping rural communities thrive

Helping rural communities retain and attract young residents is the goal of a three-year study being led by the University of Maine.

The project seeks to understand the goals and aspirations of middle- and high-school students in traditionally forest-dependent communities in Maine and Oregon. Researchers will look at economic restructuring, community characteristics, and young people’s perceptions of local labor markets in these regions.

“We’re trying to untangle how the community in which kids live in affects their aspirations and hope for the future and also hopefully provide some information on what communities can do to better support youth in these places,” says Mindy Crandall, an assistant professor of forest landscape management and economics at UMaine, who is leading the study.

The project consists of three main components: an anonymous survey, community listening sessions, and the distribution of a capitals mapping tool that can be used for program evaluation by organizations involved in delivering youth training and education programs.

Through the surveys and listening sessions, the researchers seek to learn more about the connections among local communities, youth aspirations for the future, and the local economy.

The researchers say they hope the information will help communities better engage the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs as residents and leaders, develop more targeted education and training opportunities, and attract more early-career people to relocate or return to rural places.

“The main goal really is to generate information that’s useful from a research perspective, but also generate information that will hopefully be useful on the ground, in the communities,” Crandall says. “Because we know communities, especially in northern Maine, are constantly trying to figure out how to retain and attract young people. A dwindling workforce, places where the school population is kind of right on the edge of viability, those are pretty critical issues to keep young, working families in those places.”

The first year of the project has been focused on developing the survey and administering it to students through middle and high schools in the Piscataquis County towns of Guilford, Greenville and Dover-Foxcroft, as well as Jackman, a Somerset County town that shares similar rural characteristics.

Surveys will be given to students this spring. Questions will focus on what students think about their community as well as what they want to do and what they think they will do in terms of future employment and school, Crandall says.

Community listening sessions also are being planned in the participating communities for the end of May. During the sessions, children and their parents will be invited to enjoy free dinner and dessert before breaking into groups to discuss hopes and fears for the community.

Parents or guardians in Piscataquis County can sign their teen up for the survey or listening session by emailing the Rural Youth Futures Project at um.ruralyouth@maine.edu, or calling/texting Crandall at 207.880.2140.

“We hope to get shallow information from as many as possible with the survey and deeper information from a few people with the listening sessions,” Crandall says. “I think too often we focus on what adults think is needed in a community, but the youth are the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs; the people who are going to bring good ideas to help these communities, so it’s really important to get their perspectives.”

Next year, the surveys will be deployed in Coos County, Oregon. During the final year of the project, the survey will be repeated in Maine and researchers will begin to analyze and compare data.

“Youth aspirations and labor market transitions in rural communities” was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture in May 2017.

Other UMaine researchers involved in the project are Jessica Leahy, a professor of human dimensions of natural resources; and Nicole Bernsen, a doctoral student.

Community partners in Maine include University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Helping Hands with Hearts and Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce.

Contact: Elyse Catalina, 581.3747