OPINION: Cornwall needs a youth retention strategy

Image of Shawna O'Neill
By Shawna O'Neill
OPINION: Cornwall needs a youth retention strategy
Mayor Bernadette Clement meeting with community high school students for dinner on Sunday, June 9 (Shawna O'Neill/Seaway News photo).

Aspiring 20-somethings who grew up locally, especially recent graduates of post-secondary education, are leaving or not returning to the region and I can’t blame them.

Mayor Bernadette Clement met with a handful of high school students for dinner on Sunday, June 9 and discussed a number of topics, including staying in the community and/or returning in the near future. Some expressed that they feel there is not enough offered locally for their demographic.

I feel that organizations within our community need to be more cognisant of the implications of losing ambitious youth and ask themselves why this is happening and what they can do to prevent this. More importantly, they should be directly asking local youth what would make this area more attractive to them and why. An overarching youth retention strategy is needed in this region. In this context, I am referring to youth as individuals aged about 18 to 29. 

My close local friends have joked about Cornwall, its lack of inspiration and its frequent complacency with being unabashedly ordinary. Recognizing outdated local infrastructure and ideas, partnered with a general lack of desire to change things or progress has led us to dub our hometown as ‘the purgatory’ on a few occasions. We are not unappreciative of the place we grew up in and recognize its many unique qualities, like the community coming together to raise funds for a multitude of important organizations. We see its potential, but also its room for growth. For example, Cornwall recently placed one spot shy of dead last out of 125 entrepreneurial cities in Canada. This bleak outlook is not because, as some might argue, Cornwall was recently voted the seventh best retirement city in Canada, or because our area clings to its history and traditions, as I consider these admirable qualities. This is because Cornwall lacks (the right) employment opportunities, higher education options, as well as youth and social engagement.

Sociological studies often attribute petty crime in communities like Cornwall to a lack of social opportunities or “nothing to do on Saturday nights.” Ironically, when I look at the daily police blotter, the most common demographic involved in local crime is individuals in their 20s on the weekends. This could relate to deeper generational and economic problems unique to our area entirely, with statistics placing Cornwall high up for the most sexual assaults in Canada. But there is undoubtedly a divide among the adult and youth population in terms of social engagement opportunities in our region. I feel that organizations, business owners and event hosts need to improve their marketing to reach, appeal and better inform younger audiences about local initiatives. Accounting for what could interest youth socially could foster a deeper sense of community and feeling of productive involvement among their population, which in turn could blossom into greater opportunities for our area. Additionally, recruiting businesses geared directly to young adults, or developing a youth social council, or a trendy shared working space could see many rewards in our community. 

Cornwall arguably prides itself on having a number of job opportunities in the warehouse and manufacturing market, however these job types do not always align with the job aspirations of young individuals. Recent youth retention studies conducted in similar communities across the province suggest that young graduates often struggle to find jobs in their hometown that fit their education or offer room for career growth. So, consequently, many of my generation migrate to more metropolitan cities, whether out of employment necessity or blatant desire for more opportunity. Additionally, Cornwall does not have a university. Although we do have St. Lawrence College (SLC) and the recent development of the Ontario Emerging Jobs Institute (OEJI), which offered post-secondary courses, the lack of university level options may negatively affect career and personal advancement options, an overall desired lifestyle among youth and increased entrepreneurial perspectives or inspirations.

I think Cornwall needs to strive to be more trendy and modern, attractive to tourists and locals alike, and invest in itself by increasingly investing in the desires of aspiring young adults. They are a powerful generation and our future leaders after all. 

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