Returning Home and Making a Living: Employment Strategies of Return Migrants to Rural U.S. Communities


  • Christiane von Reichert Department of Geography, The University of Montana
  • John B Cromartie Economic Research Service, USDA
  • Ryan O Arthun Department of Geography, The University of Montana


return migration, employment


This research focuses on return migration to rural areas in the United States and documents strategies that return migrants use for securing employment. Rural labor markets, due to their small size, limited diversity, and lower wage scale, can be challenging for people looking to make a living. To understand how these labor market constraints affect rural return migration, we draw on over 300 semi-structured interviews with stayers, outmigrants and return migrants. Conversations, conducted at 10- to 30-year high school reunions in geographically isolated rural U.S. communities, affirm the well-known challenges and significant barriers to employment in small towns. However, additional interviews with community and business leaders also document employers' difficulties in filling skilled work positions. Return migrants take on jobs both in the public and private sector, but quite a few carve niches through self-employment, mostly in service sectors. We also encountered a small number of return migrants who started internet-based businesses or otherwise worked remotely. A reoccurring theme highlights how return migrants accept career sacrifices in order to raise their children in a familiar, small-town environment. We conclude that return migrants can be a boost to the economic and social vitality of rural communities and that communities should make efforts to both attract and retain them. Keywords: return migration, rural communities, rural labor markets, employment, geographic isolation, United States

Author Biographies

Christiane von Reichert, Department of Geography, The University of Montana

Professor of Geography at the University of Montana, Missoula. Research focus on migration and rural communities.

John B Cromartie, Economic Research Service, USDA

Geographer at the Economic Research Service. Research focus rural migration, population distribution, and the effects of demographic change on rural well-being.

Ryan O Arthun, Department of Geography, The University of Montana

Graduate student in Geography. Interest in issues related to rural community development and rural vitality.