Metro areas have more or less fully recovered from the effects of the recession, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, with employment exceeding its pre-recession peak by 4.8 percent in 2016. By contrast, employment in rural areas is still below pre-recession levels — meaning those areas haven’t seen the same recovery.
Why is there a disconnect between rural and urban areas when it comes to employment after the recession?
It’s a highly-complex issue with multiple factors. But one aspect is location. Employers tend to hire people who live close to their offices, which are often located in or around metro areas. The rise of remote work is changing the situation.
Rural Workers Face Longer Commutes
In August 2017, FlexJobs surveyed more than 800 people who identified themselves as “living in a rural area” and found that 16 percent of rural professionals say they currently have “long or super commutes,” which are typically defined as 90 minutes or more each way to and from work.
Comparatively, only 2.6 percent of the entire U.S. workforce are super commuters. A rural resident is six times more likely than the average U.S. worker to commute extreme distances to work.
Consider that only 21 percent of rural residents said their longest daily commute was less than one hour — which is the average for the U.S. workforce (26 minutes each way). People living in rural communities are far more likely to have longer-than-average commutes, traveling extreme distances to work every day.
But there is an important and growing trend that can help increase work.
Remote Work Presents Game Changer
With the rise of remote work — 115 percent over the last 10 years — there are more types of opportunities open to workers in rural areas, as well as any economically disadvantaged areas, to find work that isn’t tied to one specific location.
Trae Miller is the executive director of the Logan County Economic Development Corporation (LCEDC), a nonprofit organization focused on expanding the county’s economic base.
“Our typical profile of a potential telecommuter includes parents; town and country, rural citizens, [the] disabled, retirees, college students and those needing flexible work options,” said Miller, “including under-employed individuals and spouses of transferees like physicians that have professional skills but no local job opportunities.”
The work of the LCEDC is supporting existing and new businesses and developing infrastructure like high-speed Internet access. Miller says rural remote jobs are a “viable workforce strategy” for the goal of creating more jobs for Logan County’s 23,000 rural residents.
When employers adopt remote work policies that enable hiring outside of their immediate geographic areas, residents, companies and communities all benefit.
Why Living Rural, Working Remote Works
Michael Cornett is the director of Teleworks USA, part of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, a workforce development agency serving 23 counties with the mission to prepare, advance and expand the workforce in eastern Kentucky.
Cornett said remote work helps to alleviate the “unique set of geographic and economic challenges” faced by eastern Kentucky. Over 1,000 eastern Kentucky residents have found remote work through Teleworks USA, rather than having to relocate out of the region to find viable work opportunities.
Our clients appreciate that they can work from home while saving funds that would otherwise be used for gas, work attire, dining out and other expenses associated with brick-and-mortar jobs, said Cornett.
Miller noted a variety of remote work options allows people to come home if they’ve had to move away to find work. It helps people who no longer want to, or can’t afford to live in urban areas, find a better quality of life while maintaining their careers.
The traditional urban work model of ‘living in cities because that is where the jobs are’ no longer applies when a worker transitions to the work at home model,” said Miller. “For some, having an opportunity to either find lower cost housing, or cash out the equity that has built up in their Denver or Front Range home and move to a quieter rural community can be very appealing.”
Rural job seekers have shared their stories about remote work on Flexjobs:
- Cody used remote work to relocate from Portland, Oregon, to a small town in East Texas to be closer to family.
- Shanna, a mother of nine from New Albany, Pennsylvania, found a remote job to support her family without a long commute to a metro area.
- Jennifer, a college student in Owings, Maryland, found a remote job that also aligned with her pursuit of a marketing degree.
Broadband Needed to Support Remote Work Opportunities
Areas once prone to economic boom and bust due to heavy reliance on one or two industries, such as agriculture or natural resources, are seeing more stable economies, thanks to remote work, said Ginger Chinn, the managing director of Urban and Rural Business Services for the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
The office’s “25K Jobs Initiative” is focusing on rural Utah over the next four years, and “remote work is a critical component,” Chinn said. A key reason for this is Utah’s excellent broadband Internet access. Utah has had the fastest Internet speeds in the western United States, according to Akamai Technologies’ regular State of the Internet report.
“Telecommuting opens possibilities to diversify economies and creates valuable opportunities for residents to achieve incomes and careers they might not have otherwise. In addition, these communities retain those residents and grow,” said Chinn.
Kentucky’s Teleworks USA is seeing significant success. The group has helped connect more than 1,100 eastern Kentuckians with remote jobs, “with a 71 percent retention rate since January 2015,” said Cornett.
Remote work is contributing to economic growth, according to Cornett. “These numbers represent an estimated $25 million in annual wages being brought into the region strictly via remote-work job opportunities.”
The Benefits of Employing Remote Workers
Employers also see benefits from hiring remote workers, including recruiting from larger pools of job seekers and saving on building and other expenses associated with physical office spaces, said Cornett.
“It’s a perfect situation for both the companies and the teleworkers,” he said.
The 2017 State of Telecommuting Report found a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per year for every half-time telecommuting employee, and $22,000 per year for full-time telecommuters. It’s “largely the result of increased productivity, and reduced real estate, absenteeism and turnover costs,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, which analyzed the report data.
Rural Broadband a Major Obstacle for Remote Work Opportunities
One of the major obstacles to implementing remote work in rural locations is that working remotely is heavily reliant on secure and reliable high-speed Internet access. Thirty-nine percent of Americans in rural areas do not have access to broadband service, compared with only 4 percent of people in urban areas.
“Remote work opportunities are a big piece to a very large and complex puzzle of transformation in our region,” said Jared Arnett, executive director of Kentucky SOAR, an organization working across 24 counties to reshape Appalachia and partner of Teleworks USA.
Kentucky SOAR seeks to increase the availability of affordable, high-speed broadband and increase adoption rates as well as advance the regional workforce to be competitive in the digital economy and emerging industries.
Establishing Training Programs for Rural Workers
Training residents for remote work opportunities is another part of connecting rural workers to remote work.
An innovative training example comes from U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna, whose district includes California’s Silicon Valley, which has employers like Apple, Google and Facebook. Khanna is promoting a public-private partnership called TechHire Eastern Kentucky, which offers paid training for people to learn to code and finds paid internships with tech companies in Silicon Valley that will lead to remote employment for eastern Kentucky’s “coal country” residents.
And Kentucky SOAR and Teleworks USA are partnering with three community and technical colleges in eastern Kentucky on a program called Digital Careers Now. Arnett said the program provides “rapid, real-time, industry-led training” in remote job fields like information technology and healthcare.
“By creating these hubs, we are providing a practical mechanism” to provide specific training that leads to employment, said Arnett.
States Encouraging Remote Work
In addition to Colorado, Kentucky and Utah, there are more examples of campaigns designed to encourage remote work in rural areas:
- Maine: The Maine Center for Business and Economic Research and the University of Southern Maine are studying the state’s growing telecommuting workforce. One goal is to entice people to live in Maine and bring their jobs with them, working remotely.
- Montana: A group in Montana has created a “Bring Our Families Back” campaign to encourage alumni of two major universities in the state, living elsewhere, to return to Montana and work remotely in their current jobs.
- Vermont and New Hampshire:These are the first two states in the U.S. to enact laws protecting residents’ “right to request” flexible work arrangements. Residents who wish to work remotely can request that option from their employers without fear of retaliation. In Vermont, in particular, “employers must grant the request unless it is ‘inconsistent with its business operations or its legal or contractual obligations.’”
Get the Word Out: Remote Work Bolsters Small Towns
The decline of small-town America has long been lamented. While the decline is complicated, remote work to a tool that can bring back the economies of small towns, as well as economically disadvantaged areas.
But connecting rural areas to remote work is challenged by low awareness. Many people don’t realize the array of remote work opportunities because 10 years ago was far less remote work and in fewer career areas. But this has changed dramatically.
Miller said a wide variety of remote work is being done by rural Colorado residents.
“We’ve seen remote work opportunities as reported by our job seekers to include counseling and teaching positions, customer service, sales, voiceover, accounting and administrative jobs,” said Miller.
Other remote work is being done by health professionals; business consultants; administrative and billing workers; marketing, Web and graphic design professionals; videographers and chemical engineers.
To help with this, there are partnerships that can be created at the local level, such as the partnership FlexJobs recently launched with the non-profit Logan County Economic Development Corp. in Colorado. The partnership’s goal is to expand awareness of remote career opportunities for Logan County residents.
About the Author
Sara Sutton Fell is CEO and founder of FlexJobs, a career website for telecommuting, flexible, freelance and part-time job listings, founder of Remote.co, a one-stop resource for remote teams and companies and founder of 1 Million for Work Flexibility. She was named as a Young Global Leader in 2014 by the World Economic Forum. Sutton Fell is a graduate of UC Berkeley and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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