Rural youth share aspirations in large-scale surveys in Maine, Oregon

ORONO — For middle and high school students in some forest-dependent rural communities in Maine and Oregon, a lack of money for education is the top barrier to pursuing the career they want, according to a survey of more than 2,000 youth by researchers at the University of Maine and Oregon State University.


The teens surveyed in Piscataquis and northern Somerset counties in Maine, and in Coos County in Oregon were in agreement that training in hands-on skills, advice on education or college and advice on jobs and applications would be most valuable in helping them realize their aspirations.


The Rural Youth Futures project survey results, published in a series of fact sheets and available on Digital Commons, provide schools and communities in the two counties with insights into what the next generation of residents and workers value and need as their rural hometowns face economic, demographic and workforce changes, according to professors Mindy Crandall and Jessica Leahy.


“Middle and high school students in both Maine and Oregon were able to clearly communicate what they would like to see as a future for their hometowns, and what they’d like to see for themselves — whether more school, a career, or where they live as adults,” says Leahy, UMaine professor of human dimensions of natural resources.


In 2017, Crandall and Leahy, faculty members in the UMaine School of Forest Resources, launched the three-year study, “Youth aspirations and labor market transitions in rural communities,” funded by a more than $458,000 USDA award. The project looked at economic restructuring, community characteristics and young people’s perceptions of local labor markets in traditionally forest-dependent rural communities in Maine and Oregon.


The project explored rural youths’ perceptions and aspirations, with a goal of better understanding youth decisions about their human capital investments, and the potential impact their choices may have on rural community persistence in the future. The survey included questions designed to learn how teens felt about their local community, their school, and their economy. 


“These facts sheets — either for the full study area or survey findings for specific schools — can be used by the schools, community leaders, nonprofits and others working on economic development to provide rural youth with opportunities to achieve their aspirations,” according to Crandall, now an assistant professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.


In 2019, more than 1,300 students in seven Coos County schools and 578 youths in five Piscataquis and Somerset county schools were surveyed. The Maine schools were Forest Hills Consolidated School, Greenville Consolidated School, Penquis Valley High School, Piscataquis Community High School and SeDoMoCha Middle School.


Schools in rural communities are critical, say Leahy and Crandall. They bring families together, support civic interaction, and foster workforce development. Schools also influence youth aspirations for future education. Students were asked about their school experiences and goals, what they felt were barriers to those goals. 


They also were asked about their communities, including the most important problems. For Maine students, the top three important problems facing their communities were: people not having enough money, not enough things to do in town and not enough jobs. The Oregon youth cited: drug and alcohol abuse, not enough things to do in town and people not having enough money.


When asked where they want to live and expect to live when they are 30 years old, the largest percentage of Maine students — 31 percent and 35  percent, respectively — said it would be in the same town, or nearby. The largest percentage of Oregon teens — 24  percent — said they want to live in a city in another state, but 28  percent expect to be living in an Oregon city and 27  percent expect to be in their same hometown, or nearby.


An important feature of this project was the community involvement, Crandall says. The survey included both questions from published literature, as well as local community member input through our site-specific steering committees, and involved Cooperative Extension experts and local nonprofit groups in both states.


The resulting fact sheets provide important perspectives and insights for communities, schools and organizations dedicated to helping meet the needs of youth as they make choices about their future. Those decisions can be difficult for young people living in natural resource-dependent communities, where economic uncertainty and diminished local work prospects have resulted in declining populations and outmigration, according to the researchers.


“We hope that this project will lead to better connections between youth, their community, and the local labor markets,” Crandall says. “Ultimately, we just want more options for kids so that they have the tools to choose what’s best for them — whether it’s college or work. That’s why getting the results back to the local communities was a high priority for us.”

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