04 May 2023

Attracting and retaining staff in rural areas: the role of identity and place

NICRE-funded research

Rural organisations are facing unprecedented staffing challenges, writes Carley Foster, Professor or Services Marketing, University of Derby, and Susan Kirk, Deputy Subject Group Head, Leadership, Work and Organisation, Newcastle University Business School. Not only is it difficult to recruit employees, but it is also a challenge to try and retain staff in locations where it may be hard for individuals to travel to using public transport, accommodation prices are high and job prospects are more limited, particularly for younger workers. This has been exacerbated by factors such as Covid and Brexit which have led to, for example, more people wanting to work from home and new requirements associated with working in the UK for Europeans.

That said, working in rural locations has a strong appeal for many, especially those located in areas of outstanding beauty such as the Derbyshire Peak District, which is the focus of this study, one of seven research projects commissioned by NICRE. In these places, employees often have a strong sense of belonging with the local communities in which they live and work, remaining loyal to their employers for many years. However, this has led to the area becoming a ‘green graveyard’ where people retire, making it difficult for employers to attract new and younger workers.

Deficit in labour market

Tourism forms a large part of the economy in the Peak District as well as other labour-intensive sectors such as mining and agriculture. A reduction in visitors and business closures during Covid, in addition to many overseas workers permanently returning to their home countries, has meant that the labour market has become exceptionally difficult for both large and small employers. This is in spite of the area being located near to large cities with active labour markets, such as Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby.

In many cases, the fact that the area is also an attractive place to live, work and visit has not been enough to attract or retain staff. Some exceptions to this have been in the form of older professional people who can afford property and relocate to the area as they are able to work from home. However, whilst in some cases they live and work in the Peak District, these individuals are employed elsewhere and thus do not fill the deficit in the local labour market.

In order to help employers manage these challenges, our qualitative study is designed to enhance our understanding of how businesses in the Derbyshire Peak District can attract and retain workers and offset skill losses within the region. The project will adopt a place-based approach, taking a holistic perspective on these issues to explore how a ‘sense of belonging’ influences how people identify with where they live, work and visit. This helps to address drawbacks of current labour market initiatives which are not interconnected and instead are sector, local area or employer based.

The views and experiences of employers, local authorities, policymakers and business support organisations will be gathered through cycles of action learning and feedback throughout the duration of the project and interview data will capture the real-life experiences of attracting and retaining staff in the region. Our intention is to co-produce a set of recommendations and related materials, all of which will be captured in a policy briefing. These will highlight how developing a strong sense of identity and place influences worker attraction and retention within the region.