Return Migrants Overcome Employment Barriers in Small Towns

There is growing evidence that efforts to attract and assist return migrants can reap benefits for rural communities, especially in geographically isolated areas that otherwise tend to attract few new migrants. Return migrants typically add children to rural school systems and bring back needed skills and experience. However, overcoming employment challenges in these communities often requires a combination of sacrifice, risk taking, creativity, and patience.

Geographers from ERS and the University of Montana gained insights on employment-related barriers to return migration from interviews conducted at high-school reunions in 21 rural communities throughout the country during the summers of 2008 and 2009. The reunions provided a unique opportunity to interview returnees and nonreturnees (those who had left and not returned) simultaneously, along with reunion attendees who had never moved away. Nonreturnees considering a move back home, especially those in specialized, high-skill occupations, typically expressed employment-related concerns. 'There wouldn't be a job.'

Almost all returnees stated that they came home primarily for family reasons--to raise their children in a rural setting, to be closer to their parents, or both. The slower pace of small-town living and greater access to outdoor activities were frequently cited as well. Though few returnees moved back primarily for employment reasons, finding or creating employment was seen as a critical precondition for the return move. Career changes were common, and many accepted lower wages or increased job insecurity in order to meet family objectives and lifestyle goals. 'If I didn't have kids, I'd be working somewhere else making more money than I am making right now.' Returnees also mentioned tradeoffs in terms of job quality. Several described taking on part-time work, holding more than one job, being overqualified for the work that they had, or commuting long distances.

Some returned after years away to help with, or take over, family farms or other businesses. Others began advanced service businesses (law, health care, architecture) or consumer services traditionally found in rural locales (custom butchering, car repair, child care). Some drew from their urban experience and opened coffee shops, day spas, and other types of services not commonly found in smaller towns. Others brought their urban jobs with them by working remotely in software, accounting, or similar fields. The ability to combine new economic and lifestyle perspectives gained while living away with an ongoing appreciation of rural and small-town ways helped many return migrants overcome employment barriers and return to rural communities.