More Unique Than You Think

March 2002

With the paper mill shut down in our North Country town, everybody is trying to help the laid-off mill workers pay their bills. As one example, the local radio talk show has devoted a number of programs to discussions with experts on unemployment and re-employment. This has been a great way to get out important information, but it has also been a way to show support for the mill workers - to help build a feeling of community, and to get the point across that "we are all in this together."

As good as this effort has been, one program served to point out how little the world at large knows about the special problems of small towns and rural areas. The disk jockey arranged a call-in program with the author of a book on "surviving a lay-off." The book was written from the high tech, big-city work environment of California's Silicon Valley. As well-intentioned as was the author, the advice she gave must have seemed to the local listeners as if it was coming from the Moon. Some of her main points and pieces of advice:

· Don't be misled or discouraged about lack of alternative jobs. About 70 per cent of jobs are never advertised. If you really look, you're sure to find something.

· If you can't find what you want, then start your own business.

· If you can't find anything right in your community, go to the nearest larger metropolitan area where there is sure to be more opportunity.

Oh, if it was really that easy!

In our small town - and it is the same in most small towns and rural communities - the total number of jobs available (advertised and unadvertised) at any time and at the best of times might number a couple dozen. The shutdown of a mill or major employer can put hundreds of workers on the street at one time. And that's not the worst of it: most businesses in a small town spring up to serve the area's principal employer. If the principal employer suffers a major loss, there is very little chance that the small businesses clustering around will be able to survive. In many cases, the small business owners find themselves in the same unemployment line as the original casualties.

That pretty well takes care of the second suggestion, too. Even if you have another skill that might be marketable, who do you sell your product or service to? In a small town, chances are the majority of potential clients are either out of work themselves, or their businesses are doing so poorly that they can't afford to buy anything but the necessities. Yes, there are possibilities in selling local products out of the area via catalogs or the Internet, but the competition is intense. Your product, your presentation, or both has to be really special. Even under the best of circumstances, those kinds of opportunities will only be available to a few of the many in need of jobs.

And what about going to "the nearest larger metropolitan area?" In our case that's four or five hours away. In some parts of the West, it may be six or more hours distant. In other words, even if jobs are available, we are talking about relocating,not commuting. Not quite the same as going from Taunton to Boston, or Gilroy to San Jose. Not quite the same as getting laid off at Wal-Mart, and finding a comparable job at Home Depot.

If small towns are to survive, that survival depends on doing something to change the local circumstances. That makes it tough, but those of us who have lived in the big city can tell you that it is well worth any effort.

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