University researchers learn the hard way what businesses wantBack in 2000, Washington State University\u2019s Rural Telework Project seemed pretty innovative. The state\u2019s 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 \u2014 Washington Dental Service (WDS) and call center services company CSG Openline \u2014 signed up. In 2002, WDS opened an office in Colville \u2014 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\u2019t surprising, given the project was prompted by economic conditions that no longer exist. When companies are shedding real estate, you can\u2019t convince them to open new facilities. When they\u2019re hiring workers based on skill set, you can\u2019t convince them to hire based on location. And lower pay scales don\u2019t factor in, given today\u2019s employers\u2019 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\u2019s rural telework director. \u201cAlthough rural areas can\u2019t 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\u2019s new efforts, click\u00a0here.