Meet Max Salzburg. He’s 37, married and works in marketing. He lives with his wife Sonja in Fort Collins, Colorado, a bustling small city filled with breweries and bike aficionados. But Salzburg grew up about an hour away from here, in the much smaller town of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“I thought it was small,” Salzburg says. “And lame. And boring.”
Salzburg got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming, but as soon as he was finished he left for city life in Colorado, where he has been ever since. That move is fairly common: young people who grew up in rural areas move away from home at a rate three and half times higher than their city counterparts, according to federal statistics.
Max Salzburg holds Wyoming regalia in his Fort Collins, Colorado home.
But Salzburg is a little older now. He and his wife are thinking about a baby, and maybe relocating. That’s an opportunity for Wyoming and rural states like it, which desperately need skilled workers.
So how do you convince a young, educated couple like Max and Sonja Salzburg to give up farm-to-table meals and good concerts for small-town life?
Well, if you’re South Dakota, with a robocall.
“Are you looking for a better way of life? One where the skies are blue, the air is fresh and the opportunities are limitless?” That’s South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard’s opening line in a robocall you will get if someone enters your phone number at Dakota Roots, the state’s employment matchmaking program. It allows moms or high school buddies to sign up their lost loved ones to be contacted by a job recruiter, who tries to place them back in the Mt. Rushmore state.
Hayley McKee works for the state and helped set up Wyoming Grown. She says the program got started after the state ran the numbers, and realized 60 percent of young people left Wyoming within 10 years of finishing high school. She says a lot of those young people are not going to give up city life for the open prairie, “but for those people who want to come back, who are familiar with Wyoming, I feel pretty confident we are making some strides here.”
So how do you zero in on who actually wants to come back? Here’s a hint: look for diapers.
“A strategy of trying to attract back people who are in their 30s and have children probably has the best possible chance of success,” says Professor Ken Johnson, who studies rural demographic change at the University of New Hampshire.
Johnson says there is a minor trend (emphasis on the “minor”) of 30-somethings going back to their rural homes. The ones who do are usually at the point in their lives when they care less about good bars and more about good schools. Johnson says those people can be swayed by the prospect of a decent job — even if it isn’t as good as what they could get in an urban area.
“Maybe that’s enough to push somebody who is kind of sitting on the fence to think about coming back,” Johnson says.
Salzburg’s parents are hoping he will jump off that fence. They encouraged him to sign up for Wyoming Grown, but Salzburg insists they are leaving it up to him. He says he’s still undecided about moving, but a kid might make up his mind.
“If we had kids and there was a good job and we could go somewhere in Wyoming with decent schools I mean… yeah,” he says. “My childhood was boring, I want my child to have that.”
Whether his kid will stick around is another question.