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

Christiane von Reichert, John B Cromartie, Ryan O Arthun


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


return migration, employment

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The Journal of Rural and Community Development is supported by SSHRC.