How Community Leaders Can Bring a Ghost Town Back to Life
A community drained of its local economy is a heartbreaking sight, but if leaders can tap into the talent that already thrives in their neighborhood, a new one can be created.
It’s a particular kind of loss — when a town that has grown and thrived around a single industry finds that the industry has diminished or even disappeared. Communities that were once locally employed with good pay and retirement prospects now have to search elsewhere. The streets become quiet as workers commute or move to larger urban areas.
Have you heard the story about Bruceton, TN? It was once a thriving community formed around a textile factory, the Henry I. Siegel (H.I.S) company. The factory employed 1,700 people before the pressure for cheap production forced it and other companies to employ overseas. In 2000, the last 55 employees of H.I.S were laid off.
What followed for Bruceton is typical of towns that lose their anchor employer. Other locally owned businesses gradually shut down, and the place became a ghost town. For individual residents, the problem is even greater. Displaced workers try to re-enter the workforce, but they’re met with large applicant pools and lower wages while having to acquire new skill sets that might not fit their natural aptitudes.
The challenge of rebuilding a ghost town
When large local employers relocate or shut down, communities need tools to be able to rebuild and repurpose. They need a clear vision for what it will take to attract and retain new business and rebuild the community.
Labor supply is often the first consideration for companies looking to build a new site or relocate. But common credentialing metrics used to quantify the labor supply are not enough. Employers want to understand the full extent of the local talent pipeline. For example, every community says, “We have hundreds of students in our graduating class.” But what if a community could differentiate itself by saying, “We have 220 students with the high aptitudes necessary to succeed in engineering and 165 female students with the aptitude for computer programming”?
This is where communities can use an aptitude-based career guidance tool as an integral part of uncovering their talent pipeline. These types of assessments allow employers and communities to quickly uncover the talents and natural inclinations of their population.
It’s a proven method that has been used in times of crisis. During World War II, for instance, the U.S. used aptitude-based methods to build a productive workforce in the absence of young men who were leaving to fight the war. When businesses lost most of their employees and needed replacements quickly, aptitude assessments allowed employers to quickly determine where employees would fit best, based on their natural abilities, to maximize efficiency.
Aptitude testing is also an unbiased assessment that doesn’t discriminate. This is important for two reasons. Not every student is a “good tester” in the traditional sense, but every student has a set of natural aptitudes that are valuable to a local economy.
Aptitude-based methods that match to careers also open up the market to women and minorities who might have grown up with a constrained vision for their career opportunities. Businesses wanting to become more diverse and inclusive can use these unbiased tools to more easily identify future employees with the talent to fulfill their jobs. If communities struggling to find talent can invest in the future workforce in this way, they could find themselves thriving sooner than they imagined.
3 ways leaders can transform their communities
Here are some tangible steps leaders can take to reinvent their communities and turn them into places where any company would want to relocate.
1. Recognize the importance of locally owned businesses
It’s proven that the majority of money spent at local businesses stays local. For every $100 spent at local shops, $68 stays in the community to support local families and develop further business. That same 100 bucks spent at a chain store gives back just $43.
Acknowledging and giving credit to the real benefits of local business is a first step toward rebuilding and strengthening a community. When local business flourishes, it has a direct and meaningful impact on the fabric of the community. A town that is thriving is more attractive to companies — and more able to withstand the fallout if a company leaves.
2. Consider the value of incentivizing companies
When trying to recruit and fill their localities with new business, community leaders must take the time to evaluate opportunities. Not all companies will be the right additions to a community — the stronger candidates, for example, are the companies already dedicated to hiring a significant local workforce in high-demand industries.
These opportunities will be worth welcoming, pursuing and providing the right incentive structure for if they deliver on the expectations of significant growth. When there is only so much money and real estate to go around, it’s important to make sure the investments being made are wise choices for the longevity of the town.
3. Look beyond standard metrics of talent
So much raw talent exists in their local community already that business leaders don’t need to look elsewhere to find talent in a burgeoning labor market. Many employers tend to be attached to the traditional methods of evaluating talent: They pore obsessively over resumes and qualifications while ignoring the other important qualities — critical thinking, work ethic, and emotional intelligence — that are needed for a person to actually succeed in a given role.
Technology has made the process for finding and hiring easier and historically proven methods, like aptitude assessments, more accessible. By uncovering the natural talents of their workforce, local employers and communities will have a holistic view of workforce capability across multiple industry sectors. Therefore, if a community’s cornerstone employer leaves or goes out of business, the community can quickly reskill its workforce to attract new industry.
A community drained of its local economy is a heartbreaking sight, but if leaders can tap into the talent that already thrives in their neighborhood, a new economy can be created. This is how technology enables small towns to be more competitive when attracting industry.
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