By Dan Rankin
Perth South’s economic development committee learned at its meeting Tuesday about a plan being undertaken by the provincial ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs to study and improve youth retention and attraction in rural areas.
“The problem is that, currently in all rural census data areas across Ontario, we are losing youth,” said Vicki Lass, Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Advisor for OMAFRA. According to Lass, many urban areas are also showing reduced youth numbers as well. “So, it’s a problem that’s common across the province,” she said.
The effects of this youth population loss are familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Perth County’s ongoing surplus farmhouse severance debate. “It’s a shrinking tax base,” Lass said. “Fewer children in our schools, so the schools are closing. Jobs are leaving because no skilled workers are available.”
Minister of Agriculture Jeff Leal intends to visit Stratford June 29 to hold a rural summit “to look at the problem of youth retention and attraction,” she said.
But another way the ministry is trying to address the problem is by collaborating with municipalities across Perth County, to engage “a cross section of the population to work together” on solutions that will work for each individual municipality.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all problem,” she said. “We’ll be looking for each municipal partner to come up with solutions that align across the county but work specifically for your own area. You don’t have to do what other people are doing. We’ll come up with something that will work specifically for Perth South.”
Everyone from municipal politicians and staff to educators, emergency service workers, sports and recreation leaders and, of course, youths themselves, will be involved in making plans to attract youth back to the community, she said.
The ministry ran through a similar process in Huron County last year, Lass said. About 10 ministry employees worked alongside the county in tackling the issue. The result was a series of sessions for five community members for each lower tier municipality to receive training to facilitate strategic planning.
“By the time the project is done, you have five people in your community who have been trained to lead strategic planning for any topic,” she said. “It’s a basic strategic planning skill that’s developed, which gives capacity throughout your county. We’re cultivating a group that can go in and help those not-for-profits at no charge by volunteering their time and working with them to help develop their strategic plan. It really builds capacity in the community for planning and executing those plans.”
Lass said, should Perth South decide to come on board, those training sessions could begin in September, allowing strategic recommendations about improving youth retention and attraction to come forward for next budget season.
Studies have shown that when youth in the upper elementary school grades and in high school are engaged, the chance of them returning to their home community is “extremely high,” Lass said.
Members of the committee seemed interested in taking part in the strategic planning, though Perth South Councillor Stuart Arkett said he wasn’t wild about the use of the word “retention.”
“It has this connotation of worrying and fretting and trying to hold on,” he said. “Youth Attraction, rather than retention, I think, is fantastic.”
The committee deferred making a definite decision until a future meeting.