Wichita More than a dozen rural Kansas counties have seen increases in the number of residents with full-time jobs even as their overall populations have declined, according to a new Wichita State University study.
While that's good news for the counties in question, labor economist Janet Harrah says the findings probably don't signal a sustainable trend.
Harrah directs the university's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, which conducted the study.
Researchers examined changes in population and employment in the state's 105 counties between 1990 and 2000.
They found that 57 counties, mostly rural, lost population during that span. Within that group, however, 29 of those saw an increase in the size of their labor force, and 16 of the 29 experienced an increase in the number of people who work full-time.
One key finding: Those 16 counties lost population as young people ages 20 to 29 left - but the labor force grew as people 30 to 49 moved in.
The net result for the 16 counties was a 2.7 percent decline in total population and a 3.7 percent increase in labor force, the study said.
Whether working-age people will continue to move to rural counties is a question of critical economic importance, Harrah said.
"Right now we appear to be making some progress in some of our rural areas," Harrah said, "but this also is a cautionary note."
The movement of workers to rural areas may reflect a lifestyle choice - people wanting to live on more land than they can afford in urban areas, Harrah said.
But while labor force growth in some rural areas is encouraging, "one can't be overly optimistic," she said.
The movement of work-force-age people to rural areas can't continue in the absence of available jobs, she said.
"These areas were able to maintain their employment base because they could attract workers age 30-50," Harrah said, "but is that a trend that can sustain itself over time? One supposition is, it's probably not."
The study doesn't examine what kind of jobs workers are finding in those counties.
In one of the 16 counties, Ellsworth, in north-central Kansas, county clerk Jan Andrews said the Ellsworth Correctional Facility draws employees from other counties, which might explain the influx of workers.