Todd Henrikson did not plan to return to Emporia, Kansas, after more than 20 years away, but some surprising news he and his wife received caused them to reconsider – twins.
“We really were kind of intimidated about having twins,” Henrikson said. “And because our families were both interested with our families and our lives, we wanted to make it easier on their part.”
Henrikson is among a number of American professionals who have moved and started working remotely or telecommuting full time, sometimes at great distances from headquarters or clients. Some like Henrikson have taken advantage of the opportunity to adopt a lifestyle change, relocating from cities to rural areas to be near family or enjoy a calmer setting.
For rural communities who have suffered the economic effects of population loss, remote workers may provide an opening for economic recovery by attracting new residents and business development.
Rural American towns have been falling behind urban areas economically for decades, and the recession helped widen that gap. The number of rural jobs today still has not caught up to what it was in 2008 at the start of the recession, while employment in metropolitan areas now surpassed 2008 levels. More than one-third of U.S. rural counties also suffer from depopulation – a decrease of population over an extended period. The number of residents in these depopulating counties has fallen by one-third since 1950.
But today, many rural communities nationwide view remote work as a step toward growth and recovery. They are investing in technology, marketing their affordability and natural settings and even offering financial incentives in order to attract professionals to relocate to their areas.
Ironically, technology was a leading cause of rural America’s decline in the 20th century. Automation hit traditional industries, such as farming, extraction and forestry, much earlier compared to those in urban areas, according to Matthew Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation.
Residents who left rural towns tended to be younger. With few newcomers arriving, the communities were aging and lacked skilled workers or job opportunities. The accompanying economic malaise helped contribute to the current lack of financial optimism among many rural Americans and an increase in social problems, such as drug addiction, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report.
But 21st-century technologies could help reverse that trend.
Dunne’s organization works with rural communities transitioning to new economies by helping them find grants and attract investment. The areas that catch his center’s attention are those with the leadership willing to invest in building gigabit or other high-speed internet connections. Proximity to universities and the availability of local tax-free credits are also needed for growth.
The goal is not to merely attract remote workers to rural areas, but to create a network of what Dunne calls “distributed workers” – skilled employees that could lead to new enterprises being established or encourage existing companies to draw from local talent and build local hubs.
“The two things that we think are critical is, one – an emphasis on technology jobs that will be more resistant to the forces of automation – and the other is focusing on entrepreneurship so that there can be new businesses created,” said Dunne.
Emporia is one of the communities working with The Center on Rural Innovation. Lyon County, where Emporia is located, reached its peak population of almost 36,000 in 2000. By 2015, the population had decreased by more than 2,000, with most of that loss coming out of Emporia itself. Since 2015, the decline has slowly leveled off.
Private investors brought fiber internet into Emporia in 2012. Without such investment, Henrikson would have been unable to continue his career as a veterinary radiologist in the local area. After several years working in Akron, Ohio, he returned in 2013 to Emporia, where he established a radiology practice examining X-rays and ultrasound images sent to him electronically. Because the files he receives are large, quick download speeds are essential to Henrikson. That speed is unavailable even a few miles away.
“That is a limit to where I could live. I couldn’t go out right now in Emporia and live in the country and work efficiently,” he said.
More than 23 million rural Americans – 39% of the rural population – lack access to broadband or some other form of high-speed internet, compared to just 4% in urban areas. These residents are forced to rely on older and slower services, which might be the only affordable service offered.
Access to reliable and fast technology has been a focus for some in Montana’s business community for several years. The state – with plenty of open space and low population density – saw new remote workers as potential sources of a needed economic boost for its towns. The Make Montana Home initiative was created to assist local chambers of commerce in recruiting remote workers.
Jayme Morrow and her family relocated to Chinook in the sparsely populated northeastern part of Montana – an area known as The Hi-Line – in 2015. At the time, she was employed with the federal government at the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Online connectivity was vital for both her and her husband’s jobs.
“We weren’t going to move to a community that didn’t have broadband because it would have been impossible for us to work,” she said. “But we’ve been very impressed with the connectivity up here on the Hi-Line. It’s robust. it’s better than what we had in suburban Maryland.”
Living in a large county with only about 7,000 residents helps make connectivity easy.
“There’s a lot of capacity. You’re not competing. There’s just not that many people here,” she said.
A growing number of municipalities and states, such as Vermont and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have begun offering monetary incentives for relocation. Utah has tried a slightly different approach – instead offering incentives to businesses who allow employees to work remotely from the state.
Telecommuting and remote work has expanded in the last 20 years based on reports from Flexjobs, a service that connects telecommuters with employers. In 2015, over 3.9 million Americans either worked remotely or telecommuted at least half time, more than double the number from 2005. States with the highest percentage of remote employees were located in the West, led by Colorado at 7.9%.
Remote work from a rural area can also provide a huge benefit that has nothing to do with the natural surroundings.
“When you leave the city, you kind of de facto get an enormous raise because your cost of living plummets,” said Patricia Smith, senior editor at New York Times Upfront magazine.
A lifelong New Yorker, Smith moved to Thetford Center, Vermont, in 2002. She has continued working remotely for that magazine ever since.
“Suddenly, like, ‘Oh, this is a higher than median salary for where I am.’”
Once Morrow and her husband realized that remote work was feasible for their lives, they began advocating it to support Montana’s economy, seeing as much potential benefit for the state as well as themselves.
“The towns need the people and really value having opportunities for economic growth through remote work,” she said.