How can rural communities retain millennial talent in an era of urbanization?

Millennials are probably the most closely scrutinized generation in history — they are also of vital importance to the future of society, culture and the economy.

“There’s a lot of confusion on who a millennial is,” said Tiffany Ochiltree, owner of Arizona-based GO Admin Solutions, which consults on human resources and accounting for small businesses. “Depending on where you look, it’s defined differently.”

The “Millennial generation” refers to members of the population between the ages of 18 and 34, born in 1980 and later, but no concrete agreement has been reached among experts, according to Statista, a leading data analytics company.

The Millennial generation is expected to surpass the Baby Boom generation soon to become the largest living generation.

“They are the first generation to come of age in the new millennium and they are the first natives of the digital age,” Statista said in a 2018 report. “With the first of the Millennial generation now in their thirties and the majority of Millennials beginning their careers, they will be an important engine of the economy in the coming decade.”

According to Ochiltree, millennials are focused on more than just their day-to-day tasks or issues.

“Because of technology, and because of social media and television and the internet, the world feels a lot smaller,” Ochiltree said. “It’s a lot harder for this group of people to sort of put the blinders on and focus on themselves, their community, their family, and not care about anything else.”

What makes millennials especially unique is their worldview, likely a result of the global connections the internet has made commonplace. According to Ochiltree, that worldview spurs a distinctly millennial drive to impact the world in a positive and far-reaching way — more than any previous generation.

What most people may not realize, however, is that millennials are getting older and gaining influence — today, they are adults with grown-up careers and aspirations, Ochiltree said.

“Looking at the age demographic that millennials encompass now, it’s sort of that core demographic that most businesses target as customers,” she said. “At this point, they have children — probably younger children. They are extremely well-educated as a group of people, which means, typically, they have higher incomes. As customers, of course, businesses and communities want them.”

Employers want millennials, too: “You want to have people who are dynamic, who can change, who can cheerlead — for lack of a better term — for your business.”

That might mean running a small company’s social media accounts, or it might mean going out in the community and spreading the word among other young people.

Active community members can help drive agendas and “keep things fresh,” Ochiltree said. Millennials in a rural community can make the difference between that community “retiring and dying” or building, thriving and moving forward, she said.

“There are a lot of really awesome small communities in Arizona that have really active groups of young people, and the difference between communities where you have the ‘old guard’ that are driving initiatives and doing things in the community and the communities that do a good job of attracting and involving younger people is a pretty big difference,” Ochiltree said.

Ochiltree and her accounting partner spend a lot of time traveling across Arizona to help smaller businesses with their administrative needs to allow owners and employees to spend more time on value creation. In her words, “when they take time away from what generates revenue, they’re obviously not making money.”

Ochiltree grew up in Wyoming, where she said business owners and community leaders lamented raising “amazing,” educated young people just to watch them leave for the city. She said she has heard a similar refrain in rural Arizona.

After spending time working in corporate human resources, Ochiltree realized she wanted a better balance between work and personal life. Now, she lives in Kingman, Arizona.

“As jobseekers you consider that a lot of people are applying for every job, and it’s just generally not the case, especially in rural communities,” Ochiltree said.

It is important to find unique ways to not only attract people from younger generations but to keep them in the community, because millennials possess a constant “wanderlust” — the desire to do something different, go somewhere new or find a new opportunity.

How can rural employers keep millennials from leaving them in the dust?

“I think the biggest thing that you can focus on as an employer is flexibility in attracting younger people,” Ochiltree said. “That could mean, of course, flexible schedules and environments, but it could also mean flexibility in terms of the job specifically. If you allow someone to come in and sort of make changes… if you allow them to be a voice in your business, that makes a big difference.”

A new trend, especially amongst tech companies and startups, is to provide an array of benefits besides higher pay. For example, ping pong tables, free food and other perks are often provided by large companies to create a more fun, casual atmosphere in the office.

“It’s nice, and if you can do it, that’s great, but… I don’t think that people are generally like, ‘Look, if they don’t have air hockey, I’m not working there,’” Ochiltree said. “There are a lot of organizations that look at benefits packages and what matters to people.”

When it comes to millennials, camaraderie plays an important role, she said.

“If [the employee has], for instance, a kid who plays Little League, and they have a game this Saturday, on Monday or Tuesday, go up and say, ‘Hey, how was your son’s Little League game?’” Ochiltree said.

No matter the business, employers should get to know their employees, talk to them and find out what they need from their employer.

“That goes a long way toward people feeling appreciated, like they matter,” Ochiltree said. “They’re not just showing up and filling a particular need, and then they can be replaced by the next dude who walks down the street.”

Employees’ needs may not be what companies expect. In fact, they may not even cost money.

Unique, tangible benefits — “We have nitro cold brew in our office!” — are not as effective or valuable to employees as genuine, individualized benefits that are sometimes intangible.

“A lot of the super unorthodox or creative benefits that people come up with go by the wayside pretty quickly,” Ochiltree said. “It’s nice to have, but it doesn’t get to the core of who these people are. The core of who they are is family, it’s doing something bigger than just their job, their house, their community. Those are the things to focus on.”

According to Forbes magazine, employees increasingly want to feel connected to a greater sense of purpose, and they want the companies they work for to take on corporate social responsibility.

“I’ve seen businesses that make a big deal of their charitable contributions — they do team-building days at Habitat for Humanity — and that’s super huge,” Ochiltree said. “If you take your whole crew out to do work at a soup kitchen for an afternoon around Thanksgiving, that is going to build connections and rapport and a lot of respect for your business, in the community and amongst the employees, because they feel like they’re contributing back to their community.”

And in rural and remote parts of Arizona, that sense of community is key to a region’s survival. If millennials are going to be part of those communities, they have to be included in the decision-making process.

“I think the most obvious way is to encourage younger people to get involved, whether that means running for city council positions or volunteering for a local rotary or getting involved with chamber of commerce events,” Ochiltree said. “People who are legacy members of those kind of organizations are amazing, and they know how to get things done, and they have connections, and what they can do to help sustain their community is to reach out to the younger people there and involve them.”

Open-door policies are not enough, she said. Community leaders have to reach out to the younger generations to get them to participate, because a lot of times they just do not know how, or they do not feel welcome.

“Ask them to be a part of meetings,” she said. “Ask them to just show up and give their two cents on a particular topic.”

A lot of rural communities that see younger generations leave lack central social interaction places like restaurants and bars, Ochiltree said. A community sports league can foster camaraderie and community involvement, she said.

Ultimately, what millennials want is authenticity in all aspects of life.

“The cool thing about rural communities and smaller communities is that you have the opportunity for small businesses to start and local businesses to start,” Ochiltree said. “And that is something that this generation in particular really values.”

News stories abound that millennials are “killing” popular products like American cheese (read: Kraft singles) and big beer, she said.

“It’s because they want something genuine, something authentic, something that is not pre-packaged and mass produced,” Ochiltree said. “That is a place where smaller towns can capitalize, because they’re really good at that. They’re really good at fostering personality and local, individualistic type things.”

Communities in which new development means dollar store and fast food chains cannot expect millennials to move or stay there, she said.

“As communities look at growth and look at sustainability, one of the biggest things they can do is promote small, local businesses,” she said. “As opposed to bringing in an Olive Garden, promote somebody who wants to open a local restaurant.”

What all of this comes down to is simple: millennials are looking beyond money to determine the most important aspects of their lives.

“They’re less focused on the salary,” Ochiltree said. “Of course, they want a salary they can live on — that’s a no-brainer, and more money’s always nice — but if you as a business owner are focusing the bulk of your labor budget on salary, to the detriment of benefits or flexibility, then it is going to be a losing proposition.”

Graham Bosch

Add comment

Subscribe to the Dry Heat

Get updates on the most important news delivered right to your email. Fully personalized options. No SPAM. Unsubscribe anytime.

Sign Me Up!

Let’s Get Social

Chamber Business News wants to connect with you. Follow us, tweet, share, post, comment... however you get social is the perfect way to connect.