The next big resource? Harnessing Digital Youth in rural Canada

by Wayne Kelly, 21/01/2013
After a five year hiatus, I have started doing some work again in the area of rural youth, a critical issue for rural communities. One of the projects I am working on focuses on the importance of digital skills and the knowledge-based economy for rural youth. Economic development in rural Canada is based on resource development and economic opportunities are often developed based on the discovery of new or untapped resources and it seems that one of those untapped resources, especially in recent years is rural youth and their digital know-how.


The value of digital youth
Digital youth represent an enormous resource that is unrecognized by businesses and communities. Youth have an almost inherent or natural understanding of digital technology. In his book Grown up Digital, Don Tapscott identifies that the digital immersion and upbringing of today’s youth have created a generation of people that live and breath technology, a generation that has an intrinsic understanding of how to use the internet to search for information, communicate, and generate content.
Unfortunately these skills and opportunities for youth are not often realized or acted on. A study by the telecommunications provider O2 valued the digital skills of 1 million unemployed youth in the United Kingdom at more than $10.5 billion in Canadian dollars. With the continued rise of the knowledge economy, the importance of digital skills will also keep growing, meaning this valuation of digital skills will only increase. Locally, a labour study in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba identified that computer skills are essential for all but the most unskilled jobs while at the same time youth are over-represented in those unskilled jobs with 83% of all youth under 25 being employed in unskilled jobs in the service sector. While digital skills are in high demand for operating and competing in an increasingly digital economy, there is not a significant recognition of the value of youth’s digital literacy or the opportunities right in front of rural communities. Digital youth are invaluable resource that businesses and organizations in rural communities are sitting on top of, a resource that has not been tapped and is in high demand.


Developing a digital resource
Typically, youth need to migrate to urban centres to find appreciation and employment related to their digital skills. Richard Florida’s urban focused creative economy model is based in part on the fact that creative, knowledge-based employment opportunities are only available in select urban areas. Creating digitally-related opportunities in rural communities could address two rural challenges at the same time: economic development and youth retention.
Rural communities are always looking for additional or new economic opportunities, striving to maintain or grow the local economy as resource levels and commodity prices fluctuate. Building digital capacity is also an essential requirement for communities to participate in the knowledge-economy. In addition, retaining their population, especially youth population is another challenge for many rural communities. Harnessing the natural resource of their youth’s digital capacity creates opportunities to address both economic development and youth retention for rural communities.
Organizations and businesses in rural communities can take advantage of their digital youth through creating or hiring youth for employment opportunities related to web development, information searchers and social media; through entrepreneurship support that encourages youth to start digital businesses in rural communities; and through engaging youth in community projects and organizations in roles that build a digital presence and effectively use social media.
Some initiatives such as the Digital Youth Academy are already starting to mine this resource and create opportunities for youth, setting up internships that build on the natural digital capacity of youth and provide essential skills for businesses and organizations. Rural communities in Canada can do something similar and create local opportunities for digital youth to find employment and to get recognition for their skills, developing economic opportunities while providing youth opportunities and incentives to stay.


Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. McGraw-Hill.


Wayne also has his own blog on community developement and knowledge sharing:
And, he has published other posts on related topics to Exploring Rurality:
WAYNE KELLY is an ICRPS alumna (Guelph, Canada 2004 and Leuven, Belgium 2005) and holds a MRD from Brandon University in Rural Development. Wayne is currently working as the research manager for the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University and has worked in rural community development for the past 12 years. His research interests include rural ICT and innovation, knowledge-based planning, community economic development and community engagement.
Image courtesy of Creative Commons