Last week a group of young leaders from across eastern and southeastern Kentucky - Appalachia- convened as part of the Shaping our Appalachian working group for Leadership Development & Youth Engagement. Our task: to begin structuring our efforts, which will culminate in three to five recommendations for the SOAR executive committee concerning youth.
Our challenge is critical: if Appalachian Kentucky is to become more vibrant and economically diverse, our region’s youth will be the critical players. They will staff the businesses, run the government, and provide the public backing for any successful reforms.
Thinking ahead to our youth’s future role, most important is this one: in 10 to 20 years, our region’s youth will either create area enterprises, leave this area, or stay and allow their skills and talents go to waste. Our choices are limited to those options because we will either create our own opportunities, or they will not occur.
Our group created three sub-committees last week to work on this issue. They are:
1. Youth Engagement- How can we create a regular structure for all our region’s young folks- from high school students all the way through to our young professionals- to better voice their opinions and create a sense of ownership for them in their communities?
2. Entrepreneurship & Technology - What programs/efforts are needed to encourage more enterprise creation in the 21st century?
3. Arts, Heritage, and Natural Resources- How can we leverage our heritage, nature and arts in a manner that creates a better quality of life, leadership development and economic opportunity?
By focusing on the above, our objective is to encourage more young folks to stay and create their own economic diversification. This means that enterprise creation will have to be a primary outcome.
Our economy has changed dramatically in recent decades. Manufacturing has become increasingly global and high tech. Consequently, low cost labor has migrated off shore, and domestic manufacturing has become increasingly more technical. The odds of us suddenly growing a manufacturing economy are steep given these fundamentals.
Growing a high tech economy in a rural area is a challenge. High tech requires networks of investors, lawyers, and experts usually found in urban areas only.
What does that leave our upcoming youth? Perhaps an economy built around small business creation. From Wayne County to Lawrence County, from Boyd County to Harlan County, there are some of the most contiguous, unique landscapes and cultural-scapes in the world. Our proximity to major population centers creates opportunities for tourism and retail crafts. We already possess the means to do e-commerce in most communities. The raw ingredients for an economy based on enterprise creation - an entrepreneurial economy- are here in spades.
Our goal must be to cultivate our youth and marry them with these opportunities. This won’t be easy. Lacking a culture of entrepreneurship, we will have to nurture the attitude changes and support mechanisms necessary for this shift. I’m hopeful our SOAR group can suggest effective steps for successfully making this crucial journey.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. He chairs the SOAR working group on Leadership Development and Youth Education. The opinions here are his own.