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How to Rebuild Communities through Remote Work Opportunities: Rural America

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There’s been a great deal of news since President Trump took office about how jobs are coming back: unemployment is at an all-time low and more than 1,000,000 new jobs have been created. Economists claim the United States is “at or near ‘full employment,’” meaning the unemployment rate is not likely to go down much more than it has (http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/04/news/economy/july-jobs-report/index.html).

However reassuring these numbers, they do not tell the full story. A closer look at the detail behind the monthly tallies highlights one of the problems with focusing on national totals: areas with persistent high unemployment numbers are glossed over.

Rural populations continue to struggle with unemployment. Data calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows rural America has been much slower to recover from the 2008 recession than other areas of the country. Specifically, rural America still has about 129,000 fewer jobs than it did before the recession. An editorial in The Roanoke Times (June 19, 2017) describes rural America as the “new inner city” with poverty, college attainment, male labor-force participation and reliance on federal disability insurance ranked as the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).

Rural area residents and their representatives face an uphill battle in their efforts to revitalize local economies. American manufacturing and call centers bugged out thanks to advances in automation and cheaper, overseas labor. In addition, even if corporations brought facilities back to rural counties, an ever-widening education gap means fewer skilled applicants to fill positions that require specific skills. Area community colleges are working to solve this problem by extending scholarships to qualifying students, but this is only a starting point. Despite President Trump’s promises, jobs have yet to return.

One potential long-term solution to these issues is to initiate a rural telecommuting campaign. Telecommuting (also remote work, telework, flex-work, working from home and virtual work) is becoming increasingly popular with working Americans and companies. Over the last decade, the number of employees who telecommute for at least half the work week has increased 115%. Telecommuting offers a multitude of benefits for both employee and employer including higher productivity from those who work from home, less commute-related stress, a more efficient use of business hours and improved work/life balance. Employers reduce expenses by eliminating real estate costs and minimizing lost time. Telecommuters also tend to be more satisfied with their jobs and loyal to their employers. Happy, grateful employees tend to stick around, which minimizes an organization’s turnover rate and the costs associated with recruiting and onboarding replacements.

While telecommuting remains more popular with employees than employers, an increasing number of organizations allow some degree of flexibility in where their employees work. In some cases, companies have formal programs in place and actively promote telecommuting. In others, working from home occurs informally, as needed. Ground-breaking companies like Buffer operate as fully-remote entities; all employees work from decentralized locations and rely on exceptional communication and innovative technology to collaborate, create and succeed in the business world.

As previously noted, fewer rural residents graduate from college than residents of suburbs or large, medium or small metro areas. One consequence of this trend is that non-degree holders tend to use or have access to personal rather than professional networking resources. A Pew Research Center Social Media Update (2016) found that 77% of people who did not attend college use Facebook, but only 12% of this same group use LinkedIn. This lack of access to professional networking and “online career engagement” may hamper non-degree holders from “understanding the job market and access[ing] remote jobs.” Professional networks also provide education and information that is not widely available such as:

  • Identification of remote work openings

  • Resources for improving skills needed for various remote work positions