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The country pub and the local footy team are part of Australian folklore, but if they are all a rural centre has to offer, they can also be an impediment to retaining highly skilled professionals in towns with ageing populations and limited opportunities for young people says Deakin University’s Professor Sue Kilpatrick.
Professor Kilpatrick, the Warrnambool-based Pro-Vice Chancellor (Rural and Regional) said a groundbreaking study funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) had found that young professionals, particularly women, needed a greater variety of activities to keep them in small rural centres.
"A lot of the workers we looked at in the study were single young professional women, for example, and they didn't find communities that were dominated by sport and a beer-drinking pub culture were communities that they felt comfortable and welcome in, and so they tended to move on,” she said.
“To ensure small rural communities can attract and retain these highly qualified people, they need to make an effort to integrate newcomers through a wider range of social clubs and activities.”
The RIRDC report investigated the question: how can rural communities capture maximum benefit from professional and other highly skilled workers in the context of an increasingly mobile and transitory workforce?
It found that rural communities derive a wide range of benefits from mobile skilled workers.
“The effectiveness of the integration process determines the nature and extent of a mobile skilled worker's contribution to the community,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
“Community settings that encourage and support mobile skilled worker integration are identified in terms of culture, leadership and interactional infrastructure.
“These same settings also influence mobile skilled worker retention in rural communities.“
Seven rural communities of under 12,000 people took part in the RIRDC research - six in Australia and one in Canada.
The seven sites represented variation in terms of size, location, degree of remoteness, and rural industry base.
Data were gathered through individual, semi-structured interviews with key informants and mobile skilled workers. A total of 89 mobile skilled workers and 28 key informants participated.
Key informants were regional development officers, managers of state and local government services operating in the community, and community associations.
“This is the first Australian study to explore how rural communities can capture the advantages from highly skilled mobile workers,” Professor Sue Kilpatrick.
“Country towns that make the most of the available pool of skills can increase community capacity, resilience, identification and uptake of opportunities such as new enterprises, good practice in natural resource management, enhanced social and leisure opportunities, and the quality and range of local services.”
Strategies available to country towns wanting to optimise the benefits they derive from mobile skilled workers include:
• better targeted recruitment processes to ensure a match between mobile skilled worker and the community;
• publicising the benefits of mobile skilled workers and other newcomers to the whole community;
• developing well publicised mechanisms for newcomers to find out about and become involved in community activities;
• identifying specific leadership roles in relation to integration of newcomers; provide a coordinated, planned and well publicised integration program to all newcomers;
• providing community leaders with information on the nature and impact of the mobile skilled worker lifecycle as part of the integration process;
• developing integration programs that provide for a staged range of interventions and activities;
• focussing on engaging the mobile skilled worker’s family in the community; and support the development of networks of like-minded people.
“Country towns need to be proactive in matching worker and community characteristics, and this begins with the recruitment process,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
“Mobile skilled workers need assistance and support to develop a primary social contract, and the process needs to be monitored. This is a community-wide responsibility and requires a coordinated, whole-of-community approach.”