Google's work from home extension could be a boon for rural America

Google's work from home extension could be a boon for rural America
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The recent news that Google will let their workforce of over 100,000 continue to work from home until July 2021 is a seismic shift — for rural America. As Google goes, so does the rest of the tech community, followed quickly by major employers around the country. Another year of being away from the office is beyond what most employers had been tracking, and major alarm bells should be going off in suburban and rural America.

This is an opportunity not seen before in our lifetimes. Estimates as high as 39 percent have been predicted for a migration out of urban areas, but our estimates are more modest, around 15 percent. That would be 23.5 million people and their dependents on the move, according to Pew Research Center. These folks are looking for increased space, more affordable and less dense places to live, work, and play. The suburbs will likely draw some displaced workers, but my company’s prediction is at least half will head to rural America, which has 97 percent of the land mass but only 20 percent of the population.

Three months ago, the majority of employers were skeptical at best about employees working from home and using technology to do so. This changed virtually overnight. McClure Engineering Company in Clive, Iowa, compared productivity rates of its employees prior to COVID and in July of this year to the same periods in 2019 — and the results were nearly identical, and in some cases slightly higher. Working from home isn’t perfect, and it’s not for everyone, but for at least the next 6-12 months it is a reality for many. I expect a large percentage will choose to continue to tele-work when the pandemic ends.

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More importantly, you no longer have to be tethered to a big city to work for tech companies and other high quality jobs.

The notion of the American job leading workers to where they will live has been receding over the last two decades as millennials frequently value quality of life over career track. This meant that “second cities” like Kansas City, Minneapolis, Nashville, Austin and Denver saw their downtown rents skyrocket and saturate. Today this trend is picking up speed in “third cities” like Des Moines, Boise, Madison, Raleigh, Memphis, and Birmingham. 

As third cities pick up first and second city expats, so too will rural areas pick up a contingent. Many of these workers came from rural communities originally. Des Moines, as an example, has been gaining population by emptying out rural Iowa. It’s likely that many of the workers who have already fled urban for rural are tele-working and will continue to tele-work.

These migrations will likely come in waves. The first wave came when COVID first hit. The second wave is in process now, as hundreds of thousands of workers consider new options and debate where they are headed. A third and fourth will likely come in 2021 as the new post-pandemic reality begins to sort itself out.

Increasingly, people will begin searching for an alternative to high-priced cramped apartments — a higher quality of living that remote work will allow them to experience.

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Rural communities need to seize this opportunity.

Not since the turn of the last century has there been another time when rural areas stood to gain such an influx of population. But how do rural communities — many of which are already struggling with infrastructure, housing, and broadband — make their case to this nomadic workforce?

Here are eight strategies rural communities can use to attract and retain talent:

  1. Market directly to these workers – know who they are, identify them — many likely left a rural area for work not that long ago. Make sure your online presence is enticing, like Wilson, Ark., (population 829).
  2. Have basic infrastructure — especially broadband — in place, or have a plan to address it. As Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSanders supporters launch six-figure ad campaign explaining why they're voting for Biden Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Progress slow on coronavirus bill MORE (D-Calif.) told me: “I don’t think it’s possible to have a fair shot in the 21st century without the internet.” 
  3. Develop your own unique branding — play to your strengths and have fun with it: “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
  4. Have the right amenities in place — or have a plan to bring about more cultural organizations, co-working and maker spaces, child care, restaurants, breweries and recreation — like how Paducah, Ky., became a Unesco Creative City.
  5. Facilitate workforce development programs to train/upskill job seekers who want to remain rural but still work in a high-tech field. Look into coding academies like Cultivating Coders in New Mexico or Base Camp Coding Academy in Mississippi.
  6. Ensure you don’t have to drive 40 miles for health care, or install tele-medicine units like The Chapa-de Indian Health Clinic in Grass Valley, Calif., (population 12,914).
  7. Make sure your downtown is presentable like Louisiana’s oldest city, Natchitoches (population 17,831).
  8. Housing. Housing. Incentivize homeowners and builders like Newton, Iowa, (population 15,130) which offers up to $10,000 to move there, plus a lawnmower.

Even with the challenges posed by the Coronavirus, rural communities should start working immediately to capitalize on the work migration that’s beginning now and will continue as more companies follow Google’s lead in letting employees work remotely.

Zachary Mannheimer, of Iowa City, Iowa, is the Principal Community Placemaker and head of Alchemy Community Transformations at McClure. Mannheimer runs a team of 7 who use Creative Placemaking as a tool for rural revitalization, currently in 20 states and one province of Canada. He serves on the boards of Iowa Rural Development Council and Iowa Public Radio. He also hosts The Ninety-Seven Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @zackmannheimer