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Our mission is to highlight the importance of attraction and retention for young professionals in Wilson, NC. Through research/study and stories/voices, we will begin to understand what is important to young professionals in our area.

Defining a young professional?


An individual who is actively crafting and defining their personal mission. A young professional is in a space that is evolving in a way that community support has a big impact on career paths.

“Broadly speaking, millennials are socially conscious innovators and entrepreneurs who value community. They range from age 24-39 and are in their peak career and family building years. They comprise less than one quarter of the US population but represent 35% of the workforce - a larger component than any other generation.”

-  Chris Shaffner

What are attributes of talented individuals? 

  • Post-secondary credentials, especially two and four-year degrees

  • People Skills

  • Continuous learning 

  • Entrepreneurial attitude 


Skills: Apply knowledge in a dynamic business setting, critical / analytical thinking, problem-solving, prioritization /focus, process improvement, decision making


Statement of the Problem: 

We want to attract and retain young professionals because they are an integral part of the future of Wilson. Young professionals are “socially conscious” and bring different values, experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives to the table. Because of a strong value in community, young professionals desire to face challenges, embrace hard conversations and identify barriers in order to drive constructive change to make Wilson a better place.

Why do we want to attract talented professionals to Wilson?

Investment in human capital allows a city to maintain a competitive advantage, resulting in economic growth and development.

Human capital in the United States was estimated at $738 trillion in 2010, while physical and financial capital was estimated at $70 trillion (Gabe, et al., 2010). Individuals with skills, talent, education, and knowledge apply their experiences to their role as a labor force to generate goods and produce services (Gabe, et al., 2010).


Knowledge-based industries and talented professionals have been one of the most important drivers of future economic growth (O’Donovan, 2020). Communities who acquire and retain a high concentration of both are likely to be more prosperous as a key variable in attracting high technology industries, generating growth, and investment is the attraction of skilled individuals (Florida, 2002 & O’Donovan, 2020).


A 2011 survey of manufactures found “access to qualified talent” as the most important consideration when selecting a geography. In addition, manufacturers also responded that the most important aspect to the company’s future business success in the next 3-5 years is “a highly skilled, flexible workforce” (Weaver & Osterman, 2017).


Skilled individuals who possess technical, decision-making, innovative capabilities and knowledge create a pool of potential entrepreneurs, essential skills to entrepreneurial companies, and/or a source for ideas and innovations that affords the foundation of an entrepreneurial climate. (Florida, 2002).


Loss of human capital and migration results in an indirect reduction of population size (loss of childbearing cohorts/lower birth rates), higher median ages, and consequently, decreased investment in the community (Wolfe et al., 2020).

“If we can open up a little bit more to each other and share our stories, our real stories, that’s what breaks down the barriers. But in order to do that, you have to believe your story has value.”

- Michelle Obama, Becoming

“Knowledge-based industries and young professionals will be the most important drivers of future economic growth, with communities having high concentrations of both likely to be more prosperous.”

- Michigan Future, Pathways to Prosperity

What about Wilson has surprised you?

"Many more young/diverse/like-minded individuals that I've met since being here than I originally thought before moving here."

- Anonymous Survey Response

"Wilson gives you chances to be a part of something and lead the way, whereas many other cities only allow the chance to fall in line with things already happening - again, though, you still have to know the right people to do this."


- Anonymous Survey Response



Abel, J.R., Gabe, T., Ross, A., & Stolarick, K. (2010). Knowledge in cities., Staff Reports 470, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.


O’Donovan, N. (2020). From knowledge economy to automation anxiety: A growth regime in Ccisis?, New Political Economy, 25:2, 248-266, DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2019.1590326


Florida, R. (2002). The economic geography of talent, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92:4, 743-755, DOI: 10.1111/1467-8306.00314


Weaver, A., & Osterman, P. (2017). Skill demands and mismatch in U.S. manufacturing. ILR Review, 70(2), 275–307.

Wolfe, A. W., Black, L. W., & Welser, H. T. (2020). Sense of community and migration intentions among rural young professionals. Rural Sociology, 85(1), 235-257.



Explore our Research:
  • Young Professional Migration

  • How can we create a sense of community and belonging in Wilson?

Young Professional Migration:
Why they leave

The number one reason young, educated people leave rural communities is in search of greater economic opportunity, improved socioeconomic status, and lack of  established community/emotional attachment.

The study, Sense of Community and Migration Intentions among Rural Young Professionals (2020), found that noneconomic factors, for example, social ties and positive sentiments toward a place may also contribute to migration intentions. When asked how important a sense of community is to participants ages 18–25 (n = 60), young adults 26–40 (n = 114), people in their forties (n = 34), and older adults aged 50 and up (n = 80) found no stark generational differences (Wolfe et al., 2020). However, the study found that as people aged, the feeling that one has “achieved” a strong sense of community increased (Wolfe et al., 2020).  Economic factors are strong indicators of migration, nevertheless, having an emotional connection increases the likelihood young professionals will remain in rural communities (Wolfe et al., 2020).


Jacquet, Guthrie, and Jackson note that out-migration results from complex combinations of drivers including age, education, economic opportunity, culture, and community attachment. These findings warrant deeper investigation into the role that non economic factors play in migration intentions (2017).

Young Professional Migration: Why they stay

Young professionals move in search of better economic opportunities, however simply creating a monetary incentive is not enough to have someone stay long-term. Research demonstrates that having or establishing an emotional connection to a location increases the likelihood of future investment. 

Emerging research into the relationship between community attachment and migration intentions suggests that rural youth who build stronger social ties, feel respected and valued, and report a stronger sense of identification with the community are less likely to want to leave  (Eacott and Sonn 2006; McLaughlin et al. 2014; Ulrich-Schad et al. 2013).


A rural town, Wilmington, Ohio, found ways to address the economic barriers that could potentially contribute to out migration (Wolfe et al., 2020). The “Wilmington Succeeds” program established in 2014 created a homesteading grant for recent college graduates whose primary residence would be located within the City of Wilmington, scholarship opportunities for Wilmington High School students attending the local community college, and loan forgiveness incentives for Wilmington College students who choose to live in Wilmington upon graduation (Wolfe et al., 2020). By tapping into emotional/economic needs the City of Wilmington was able to retain those with an existing investment in the community (Wolfe et al., 2020). One indicator in young adults' increased responsibility, obligation, and investment in the Wilmington community was noted two years later in the 2016 City Council member make up with a  majority-millennial council (Wolfe et al., 2020). In addition, 5 of the 14 candidates for council position in the 2017 election were under the age of 35 (Wolfe et al., 2020).


“One of the most debated issues of the last generation was the brain drain of educated young people from rural areas to cities. The pandemic placed this trend in reverse. Fresh college graduates and new parents are leaving urban areas for the suburbs and small towns. Residents are now moving at a rate 20 percent over normal since the start of the pandemic, with young adults moving at higher rates than all older cohorts combined” (Tate, 2021).

How can we create a sense of community and belonging in Wilson?

  • Sense of community represents the strength of bonding among community members. It is a valuable component of community life, and has been linked to positive mental health outcomes, citizen participation, and community connectedness (Townley et al., 2011). 

  • A sense of community and belonging are both major factors that impact attachment, retention, and in some cases, migration and investment into a rural community (0000). Those who have an existing familial or generational tie to an area are more likely to buy a home, seek employment, and participate in community development. However, what of those who have migrated to rural towns without traditional links to the community? How can a sense of belonging be established?

  • A meta-analysis of the literature describing the contact hypothesis (that social contact between diverse groups can reduce prejudice) demonstrated that intergroup contact typically reduced preconceptions and bias (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).

  • A more concrete example of how interventions might be designed to increase sense of community and respect for diversity simultaneously is a music therapy project described by Gilboa, Yehuda and Amir (2009) in which a multicultural group met in weekly sessions, over an extended period, for musical presentations and discussion under the supervision of a music therapist. It was found that, following the sessions, participants expressed more acceptance and openness toward the “other,” and collective self-esteem was higher regarding both adopted (Israeli) culture and the immigrants’ culture of origin. It seems clear that this project successfully increased respect for diversity in the group. Further, qualitative results indicate that the project helped people to develop relations outside the classroom, make new acquaintances, and improve the group atmosphere (Gilboa et al., 2009, p. 18), hopeful signs for an improved sense of community, although no quantitative measure was made of this concept. Musical taste is an almost canonical example of the kind of mutable cultural attribute we have been considering, so the results of this study are highly relevant. Intriguingly, it was found that there was no significant change in participants’ attitudes toward quality, likeability, or perceived familiarity with the music of various cultures presented following the study; however, there was a significant increase in the number of musical excerpts that participants classified as “music” in comparison to the attitudes prior to the study (Gilboa et al., 2009, p. 21). We can interpret this as a process of social influence that has resulted in a set of cultural attributes as to what (for each type of music) is, or is not, perceived as “music,” becoming more similar among the participants (despite other cultural attributes such as likability and quality of each musical type not changing significantly) (Stivala, et al., 2016).

  • It is expensive to try to create large job opportunities in rural communities, but it is within that community’s ability to engage members in projects and efforts happening within that community. Higher quality of life is determined more by community involvement than by income differences (Peters, David, 2017). 

  • The Wild Center did a study for a community group in the Adironacks of New York called, “Connecting Millenials to the Adirondacks.” The adirondacks was having a very limited influx of young professionals moving there, and they hired the Wild Center to help current residents understand what they need to do in order to change this. They learned that millennials strongly crave a sense of connection and adventure. Interestingly, adventure meant a lot of things, and 71% surveyed said to them, that meant becoming involved with the history, local culture, and attractions - they really just want to understand where they live and how it came to be (“Connecting Millenials to the Adirondacks”, 2016).

Suggested emphasis:

diversity, succession planning, creating opportunity, resource centers, investment in neighborhoods, strong education system



Jacquet, J.B., Guthrie, E., & Jackson, H.  (2017). “Swept Out: Measuring Rurality and Migration Intentions on the Upper Great Plains.” Rural Sociology 82(4):601–27.


Wolfe, A. W., Black, L. W., & Welser, H. T. (2020). Sense of community and migration intentions among rural young professionals. Rural Sociology, 85(1), 235-257.

What about Wilson disappoints you?
"Other sectors of Wilson seem stuck in a time machine and there's a complacency that how things have been done are how things should continue to be done. Additionally, the large disparities between east Wilson and west Wilson are rather glaring and the lack of any apparent concerted effort to address these disparities and the underlying causes is disappointing."


- Anonymous Survey Response

An effective way to reduce gaps in healthcare are by directing funds and personnel to rural areas (Feigin & Ronen, 2019).  The study, Making Rural Health Care Better: How to Attract Interns to Rural Hospitals found that of the 339 participants the most important factors in attracting these professionals was desired residency programs and an exposure to a rural curriculum (2019).


Feigin, E., & Ronen, O. (2019). Making rural health care better: How to attract interns to rural hospital. The Australian Journal of Rural Health, 27(2), 139-145. 

Jeffrey B. J., Guthrie, E., and Jackson, H. (2017). Swept out: Measuring rurality and migration intentions on the upper great plains. Rural Sociology 82(4):601–27.

McLaughlin, Diane K., Carla M. Shoff, and Mary Ann Demi. 2014. “Influence of Perceptions of Current and Future Community on Residential Aspirations of Rural Youth.” Rural Sociology 79(4):453–77.

Tate, K. (February, 2021). Rural America booms as young workers leave the cities behind. The Hill.

Ulrich-Schad, J. D., Henly, M., Safford, T.G. (2013). The role of community assessments, place, and the great recession in the migration intentions of rural Americans. Rural Sociology. 78(3):371–98.

Wolfe, A. W., Black, L. W., & Welser, H. T. (2020). Sense of community and migration intentions among rural young professionals. Rural Sociology, 85(1), 235-257.

“Over the past few years, a growing number of Americans have been moving back to the small towns and rural communities they were once encouraged to leave. Thanks in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, 52% of adults age 18 to 29 lived with their parents in 2020, the largest share since the Great Depression, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, Census Bureau data indicate that large metro areas have seen declining growth and in some instances population losses since 2010”


- Olmstead, Grace, 2021



Gilboa, A., Yehuda, N., & Amir, D. (2009). Let's talk music: A musical-communal project for enhancing communication among students of multi-cultural origin. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 18, 3–31.

Pettigrew, T.F., & Tropp, L.R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783.

Stivala, A., Robins, G., Kashima, Y., & Kirley, M. (2016). Diversity and community can coexist. American Journal of Community Psychology, 57(1-2), 243-254.


Townley, G., Kloos, B., Green, E. P., & Franco, M. M. (2011). Reconcilable differences? Human diversity, cultural relativity, and sense of community. American Journal of Community Psychology, 47(1-2), 69-85. 


Olmstead, Grace (2021). Small-Town Natives Are Moving Back Home. Wall Street Journal.


Peters, David (2017). “Small Town Quality of Life Driven by More Than Economics.” Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.


“Connecting Millenials to the Adirondacks.” (January 5th, 2016.). The Wild Center.

Can you describe your experience growing up in Wilson? 

“Small town vibes where everyone knew each other. A time when the excitement for teenagers included driving an endless number of hours around town and a city trip was to Rocky Mount for Target and the mall. Looking back now I never truly appreciate the proximity to great friends and the solid connections to community."


- Anonymous Survey Response


More Young Professional involvement would create a pipeline of individuals in Wilson who:

+ want to be involved
+ will be future leaders
+ have social capital
+ will invest in community/neighborhoods 
+ have job stability
+ are building confidence and setting expectations 
+ have personal investment in being a part of the vision/change

Can you describe your experience growing up in Wilson?

“Good place to grow up, although (like most peers) I was eager to leave after high school. After being gone for about 10 years, I ended up back in Wilson. It was then that I was able to get more involved and be part of the change I wanted to see."


- Anonymous Survey Response

Can you describe your work-life balance? 

"Working on it. The smaller size of the community offers some incredible opportunities for community connections, but it also is hard to be "off" with the nature of my work. Anonymity doesn't always feel easily accessible, and though it's not always a bad thing, it does make work/life balance more difficult sometimes. You have to be very clear and committed to setting boundaries, and that is a learning curve."


- Anonymous Survey Response

What about Wilson disappoints you? 
"Sometimes fear that there is not enough support from older generations to embrace the changes shaping our community."


- Anonymous Survey Response

What does community mean to you? “Community, to me, means you help look out for others and do what needs to be done so that everyone feels safe, has opportunities, and knows there are places they can turn if they are in need."


- Anonymous Survey Response

"Change is a chain of events, if older Wilsonions can engage the youth, inspire and offer orientation regardless of background, race or ethnicity and provide opportunities; Wilson can grow internally, creating attraction from its own growth. But if outsiders see Wilson and its communities failing and come to take advantage of its failure, it will only get worse."


- Anonymous Survey Response

What about Wilson disappoints you? 
"Sometimes I feel the values of the leadership don’t necessarily reflect mine!"


- Anonymous Survey Response

What about Wilson disappoints you? 
"Inequality and lack of resources for young minority learners."


- Anonymous Survey Response




To thrive, Wilson needs to be able to continually adapt. This requires an agile and equitable community in which young talent and leadership can come for collaborative, creative, and accessible environments of opportunity. Wilson should not be where people end up, but where young talent strives to be.

What is a “Better Wilson?”

Recommendations for change

Availability and Accessibility of High-Quality Employment

Jobs matter a great deal to talent attraction and retention. To appeal to new residents, cities and companies must work together to promote their unique market opportunities. Rethinking ways for the community to advertise relationships with local employers and forming initiatives for connecting young talent to opportunities by widening and rethinking the “word of mouth” pipeline as well as connecting current students (local and statewide) with local businesses.


Investment and Community Support of Local Education Systems

Community’s that invest in education support attraction and retention, as well as are retroactively supported by the increased population of engaged young adults and families in the community. By protecting and/or improving our educational assets that attract and retain talented graduates, the community may see the benefits of their investment in the educational system further reflected in the retention of the young talent it produces and the benefit of young talent with potential higher earning potential choosing an accessible community such as Wilson to settle and invest in. Also finding ways to stay civically engaged with young talent who leave might provide a pipeline of young talent returning to the community post leaving to pursue other educational or employment endeavors. At present, this is rarely done beyond existing personal networks, such as family.


Investment in Young Leader's Professional Development, Advancement, and Cultivation of “Place”

Invest in programs that accelerate leadership development as well as supporting the placement of young talent on engaged local boards, availability of networking events, volunteer matching systems, and high-quality mentoring. Young talent must have accessible opportunities to lead and serve. This helps to create a relationship to the community that the individual has increased, vested interest in, and a higher likelihood of choosing to stay within. However, these representatives must be able to have a voice in the established systems and experience the contributions of what a diverse group of individuals can bring to a table to be valued. Places with a sense of possibility and opportunity, where the “circle” is open, and where new ideas are welcomed are more likely to attract and retain young adults.


Investment in Tools and Amenities that are Attractive to Young Adults

Young talent values high-quality public services, including transit, schools and parks, broadband access, and the ability to choose close-in neighborhoods. Close-in neighborhoods with higher density, mixed uses, walkable destinations, lively commercial districts, and interesting streets can make a region more competitive for talented workers.

Do you feel compelled to add to this community? How? 

“I want to be able to share what I have found here in Wilson with others and boast in the opportunities presenting themself within our community. In order to do that I do in fact feel compelled to continue to add to this community through organizations supporting the growth and character of Wilson."


- Anonymous Survey Response

Do you feel compelled to add to this community? How? 

“Yes. Professionally though work in helping to support community growth and improvement through partnerships and collaborations and personally by involvement in community efforts working to increase visibility, accessibility, and collective community welcome."

- Anonymous Survey Response

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