Like many young people, we’ve experienced the anxiety that comes with trying to figure out a fulfilling career path. And often when we’re unsure of where or how to take our first steps, the script laid out before us says we have to leave home in order to start that journey.
This often means heading for major cities and hubs, where it can seem like jobs and other opportunities are more abundant than in our own towns.
But… does that mean young people have to leave home in order to have a career?
It’s true that for some folks, moving away from home to explore a new path can be extremely rewarding — and not just when it comes to career-building. New environments and experiences have no doubt broadened our own horizons!
But who’s to say that people can’t still experience something new and worthwhile within their immediate surroundings?
At Roadtrip Nation, we’ve spent the last 20-plus years traveling across the country, talking to people who have found work that supports their vision and goals for their lives. And many of them even managed to do so without leaving the area they grew up in.
So, how can we — as educators, counselors, parents, and guardians — encourage young people to discover all the opportunities they have available to them…including those in their own backyards? Let’s find out.
But First, What’s Brain Drain?
Sometimes, people don’t see opportunities and pathways to succeed or put their skills to use in their home states. And this can lead to “brain drain” — aka leaving one’s home in pursuit of a career.
Now, that’s not to say that those folks want to leave home necessarily. Some truly want to stick around — whether it’s to stay close to their families and the community they love, or to contribute to their hometowns in meaningful ways.
But brain drain convinces people that they have to leave in pursuit of greater opportunities elsewhere. And it becomes this vicious cycle where, as more and more people leave, fewer and fewer opportunities become available in these less commercial areas.
This is when brain drain starts to act like a domino effect — suddenly, everyone’s leaving their hometown to see if the grass really is greener.
Take the stories we heard on the road in our latest documentary “Paths Across Kansas,” where five young people — the roadtrippers — interviewed leaders across the South Central region of the state.
Four out of the five roadtrippers grew up in and around Wichita — so they started their journey feeling uncertain about what Kansas could possibly have to offer them.
But when they talked to leaders like aerospace engineer Abbas Qamar, who’d left his own home in Pakistan to come to Wichita specifically for better and brighter opportunities, the roadtrippers were naturally taken aback.
Abbas explained that his decision to attend Wichita State was inspired by how much Wichita itself brought to the table. And fellow aerospace engineer Roy Moye III doubled down on this, citing Wichita as not only the Air Capital of the World — but also the “Opportunity Capital of the World.”
Flipping their perspectives and hearing these stories began to paint a different picture of South Central Kansas than what the roadtrippers had previously thought.
So, where do these narratives come from that keep young people from being exposed to the diversity of their immediate surroundings?
At Roadtrip Nation, that’s what we call the Noise.
What’s the Noise?
Self-doubt, external pressures, false ideas of what success is and isn’t — yeah, that Noise.
The Noise sounds different to each of us, but it’s always these same messages telling us what we should be or be doing in order to fulfill a certain set of expectations laid out for us. And often, the Noise plays a major role in young people’s decisions to leave home or not, based on stereotypes they may be hearing about their hometown.
Take it from a young person we met from Flagstaff, Arizona, who was grappling with these same questions: “When people think of Arizona, [they] think of deserts and dry heat… but when I think of Arizona I think of hidden gems — those places that you’re gonna have an amazing time at.”
Already in their response, we can start to see their true voice trying to untangle itself from the Noise they grew up hearing. And that’s the first step in every person’s individual starting point — shedding the Noise in order to hear yourself.
Now, it’s important to recognize that these common experiences of brain drain don’t just happen in Arizona or Kansas. This sort of anxiety about opportunity exists in big cities too!
You might think of California as one of those major hubs we mentioned earlier. But one of the young people we met from Valley Springs — a small town just outside of Sacramento — told us, “Staying in my town and then going to a community college — [there’s a] stigma [that] you’re never gonna get out of here.”
The Noise really is everywhere! And in these instances, all the Noise manages to do is discount these home states and cities as not worthwhile.
But the Noise doesn’t paint a full picture of what the communities we come from truly have to offer — instead, it flattens them and obscures the range of opportunities in the places we call home.
So how do we battle this Noise, and expand ideas of what’s possible for young people in our areas?
Tips for Opening Up New Pathways
Creating a more expansive approach to career exploration sounds daring and wild — because it is! But here are some actionable ways that we can encourage young people to envision opportunities for themselves without feeling like they have to leave home.
Discover How Diverse Rural Industries Really Are
The rural economy has diversified substantially since the mid-20th century, according to the 2017 US Census report.
While one out of 10 workers is employed in areas most commonly associated with the rural economy — agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, and mining — 22.3% of people are employed in education services, health care, and social assistance. And another 11.3% of folks are employed in retail trade.
For those of us in a position to positively influence young people as they consider their futures, these kinds of statistics can be extremely helpful in broadening their view of what rural communities have to offer.
So, no, we’re not asking you to tell young people to hang around their rural communities because the world needs more farmers — which it still does! We’re asking young people to give these places a shot because there are so many other burgeoning industries that might align with their interests!
Encourage Young People to Reach Out
In our online course, The Roadtrip Nation Experience, we coach young people through the process of reaching out and talking to someone doing a job that excites them.
But these leaders don’t need to be working in D.C. or New York City. They can simply be people within their communities who have made a life that supports their visions and goals right at home.
“Being from South Carolina — and only living in South Carolina — I used to think [it] was a detriment,” Megan shared. “But what I’ve realized is that [even though] it’s a small state… there’s so much diversity.”
And that kind of diversity has made Megan want to stick around — for 10 years as director of global business development, no less! But Megan’s perspective wasn’t the only one we heard on the road.
In Wyoming, three roadtrippers were particularly interested in hearing from leaders about their state’s seeming lack of opportunities. But instead of affirming their doom and gloom, State Senator Affie Ellis reframed the argument altogether: “The lack of things here are also opportunities for people to bring things here.”
…Mind=blown. Too often, brain drain can convince young people that there are better opportunities for them elsewhere, when really — everyone has the ability to create their own opportunities!
Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone needs to stay in their home states and make new opportunities for themselves. But knowing that that’s even an option can make a world of difference for a young person who feels like the only option they have is to leave.
Create Your Own Roadmap
The leaders we’ve met on the road have shown us that leaving home is not the only way to have a career. In fact, there is no only “right” way to build a career, or a life!
So if we want to help the young people in our lives succeed, sometimes, it’s just a matter of exposing them to all the possibilities available in their own backyards and beyond — so that they can create their own roadmaps into the future.
On our road trip through Kansas, the roadtrippers all agreed that this one piece of advice from Roy Moye III was what shifted their thinking more than anything else. So we’ll leave you with it:
“Do what you can with what you have—right where you’re at. When you lean into who you are, that’s when things really start to happen.”