• United States

Rural telework generates little interest

Apr 05, 20043 mins

University researchers learn the hard way what businesses want.

University researchers learn the hard way what businesses want

Back in 2000, Washington State University’s Rural Telework Project seemed pretty innovative. The state’s outlying communities were struggling to provide living-wage jobs while its urban centers were booming. Because businesses were suffering high operating costs and employee turnover, the idea was to persuade them to relocate or expand to under-employed regions from which new hires could telework.

Funded by a $514,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, RTP targeted three communities, and provided training and support. Two companies — Washington Dental Service (WDS) and call center services company CSG Openline — signed up. In 2002, WDS opened an office in Colville — a town of 5,000 in northeastern Washington – and hired 28 workers and one manager. CSG Openline partnered with a company in Colville to provide 18 part-time call center jobs.

But beyond these successes, RTP failed to generate any interest among the 75 public and private organizations it contacted, according to the executive summary released by the Washington State University Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, which ran the project. The report points to the effects of Sept. 11, the declining economy, increased offshore outsourcing, high unemployment in Washington, stagnant businesses and a huge state government deficit. As a result, the reasons for pursuing rural telework (difficulty recruiting, staff turnover, space needs, high operational costs) did not exist.

This isn’t surprising, given the project was prompted by economic conditions that no longer exist. When companies are shedding real estate, you can’t convince them to open new facilities. When they’re hiring workers based on skill set, you can’t convince them to hire based on location. And lower pay scales don’t factor in, given today’s employers’ market.

But because the major focus was research, not job creation, WSU considers the project a success, and the nearly 50 jobs created a bonus. And the group says interest has recently begun picking up, driven in part by offshore outsourcing.

“We’ve found that most companies haven’t considered rural locations as viable alternatives,” says Dee Christensen, WSU’s rural telework director. “Although rural areas can’t match the extremely low labor costs in many foreign countries, they can save urban employers as 20% on workforce and 50% on real estate costs. Companies that require dialect-neutral customer service, proximity to staff, or are concerned about security, privacy or geopolitical unrest, locating in a rural community may be the best business strategy.”

The report also gives a nod to at-home telework, recommending rural communities expand work-at-home opportunities and develop a strategy to attract employees (who bring their jobs, of course), not employers. Well, yeah.

To learn more about the Center’s new efforts, click here.