Overlooked America sweetens the deal for remote workers

1 in 4 prefer life in rural areas; 12 per cent favour large cities: Survey
By Carey L. Biron
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 05/13/2019
Tulsa
Tulsa, Okla., is one of several cities, states and counties that have seen dwindling populations and stagnating economic growth as populations age and younger residents leave chasing opportunities. 4kclips/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Fed up with moving houses, free of work constraints and finished with big cities, Kate Yanov took a whole new approach to finding a new family home.

She let it find her.

Under an innovative program, Oklahoma's second city was actively looking for people just like Yanov to move to Tulsa, seeking residents who would stay at least a year and bring their remote jobs with them.

In return, successful applicants would get a $10,000 (all figures U.S.) stipend, housing assistance, space at a co-working location and more, according to organizers of the new program, Tulsa Remote, which is funded by a local foundation.

The Tulsa program is one of several new initiatives by cities, states and counties that have seen dwindling populations and stagnating economic growth as populations age and younger residents leave chasing opportunities — and don’t come back.

While some of these seek any newly qualified resident, others are looking to the growing number of workers who can, like Yanov, work wherever they want.

Yanov applied, was accepted and finally visited Tulsa in April.

“It just felt very comfortable, like we could slot in and set up our home and find a place where we walk the dogs every day. It was very, surprisingly welcome,” she said.

Employment was no hindrance.

Yanov, who runs the tech company she founded, can use her phone and computer to work wherever she wants, while her husband is pursuing his PhD remotely, through a British university.

And they liked the city so much that she and her husband made an offer on a house during that trip.

They’re planning to move by the end of May.

DECLINE AND FALL

Remote working on any major scale remains a relatively new opportunity, intimately tied to more powerful personal computers and faster Internet capabilities, and dependent on whether businesses are open to the idea.

In the United States, it’s also a trend that was spurred by the economic downturn of 2008, said Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation, a non-profit seeking to use the digital job market to help rebuild small-town economies.

Between 2011 and 2013, the United States “saw the first-ever net decline in rural population,” but it won very little notice.

“In the meantime, as everyone has tried to shoehorn into large urban centers, there’s a talent, transportation and housing crisis. For us, that presents an opportunity,” Dunne said.

He pointed to Gallup findings released in December that 27 per cent of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area, versus the 12 per cent who favour a large city.

Today, nearly 4 million Americans — almost three per cent of the workforce — work from home at least half of the time, a 115 per cent increase since 2005, according to Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist with FlexJobs, a job search site.

The first incentive program like Tulsa’s — offering support for people willing to relocate and work remotely — began in 2015 in the state of Montana, Reynolds said.

Reynolds said she and her colleagues have noticed an increase in similar programs over the past year or so.

In January, the small, mountainous state of Vermont started offering $5,000 to anyone working remotely for a company based outside of the state who would come and live in Vermont.

The initiative aimed to reverse an onerous trend: a third of the state population is older than 55 and will be set to retire in the next decade, said Joan Goldstein, commissioner with the state Department of Economic Development.

“There are less children in the schools,” she said. “All of these demographic numbers point to the idea that we need more people in the state … the object of the game is to get new tax filers.”

Goldstein said the Remote Worker Grant Program has seen “tremendous” interest, including from other state governments, and the governor has already sought to expand it.

“I suspect we’ll see a lot more of these types of programs, because every rural area in the country is experiencing the same issues and problems. And I suspect that we’ll all be competing with each other for people,” she said.

Not all such programs are focused on remote workers, however, with some simply seeking to entice people from cities.

Since 2012, Kansas has been trying to lure residents back to its vast rural areas, said Rachell Rowand, program manager for the state’s Rural Opportunity Zones project.

The program accepts applicants with college degrees then helps them pay down their loans, and has been particularly successful in attracting doctors and teachers, Rowand said.

It covers 77 of the state’s 105 counties, many of which have experienced double-digit population loss, she said.

“That’s scary, so we’ve been trying to find a way to help people move back into rural areas.”

'BEAUTIFUL DOWNTOWNS'

As yet, there is no data on the cumulative economic effect of initiatives like those running in Tulsa, Vermont and Kansas, said Dunne, with the Center on Rural Innovation.

“We’re at an early stage of exploring this,” he said.

Policymakers have “been slow to even look at economic development strategy and performance to recognize the situation in our country right now, particularly in rural areas.”

But he points to great possibility in moving large swathes of the digitally enabled economy out of urban areas and into “these beautiful downtowns all across America.”

Already, Dunne said, the number of people across the country with access to high-speed Internet is “equivalent to the workforce of three or four San Franciscos.”

Thus far, this new spate of incentive programs is creating significant interest, organizers said.

The Tulsa Remote program received more than 10,000 applications in just 10 weeks — 10 times what they had been anticipating, said executive director Aaron Bolze.

The program is now expecting more than 100 people to move to Tulsa this year, with another application process opening in the autumn, he said.

Bolze can relate to those interested in the program.

He grew up in Tulsa and moved back two years ago from San Francisco — like Yanov, seeking a cheaper, more intimate existence.

“I couldn’t be happier. My life is a lot more full.”

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