(Source: Pixabay.com)

Part of a series on Utah rural development programs.

Even before the pandemic upended how people work, Utah was focusing on remote working, all in an effort to attract and retain talent to rural counties in the state.

In 2018, Utah Governor Gary Herbet signed into law the Rural Online Initiative, also known as ROI, a play on the business shorthand for return on investment. The focus of the ROI program is to provide Utah’s rural workforce and businesses with education, training, and services for online opportunities in remote employment, freelance work and e-commerce. 

“Business recruitment is a great strategy for an urban center. But for rural, it’s broken,” said Paul Hill, Utah State University Extension associate professor. “It’s been broken for a while and a lot of traditional economic development directors, they’ve been stuck.”

Enter remote work, in which an employee works for a company in a separate location or starts their own business. Either way, they need to learn skills that they may not have learned in a traditional office setting.  

A promotional image for Utah’s Remote Online Initiative, which helps people learn skills they may need to work successfully from a remote location. The program is designed to help the state’s small towns and rural areas retain or attract new residents and workers. (Source: Utah State University)

ROI offers course certifications that teach some of the things people learned during the pandemic and working from home – how to use communications platforms like Slack and Zoom and how to establish a space for professional video calls. But it’s also so much more, Hill said. That includes how to watch for burnout, isolation and how to conduct work flow and best practices to remain productive. 

“If you haven’t worked in a remote environment, you’ve got a lot of different distractions,” he noted. 

Before the pandemic, officials would go around pitching the idea of remote work to people and explaining what it meant. Since 2020, however, that hasn’t really been necessary, Hill said. 

“Now everyone knows what it is,” he said. “They all know about Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Google Meet.”

Still, officials had to explain, he said, that remote work is more than just taking your laptop home and checking email there rather than at the office. 

Which leads to another issue that they’ve seen — employers discussing how productively has increased substantially. 

Hill said it’s important to check on employees who work remotely to gauge how much they are working. 

“Have you been checking on your people? Are they working 15 hours per day?” he said. 

According to an impact report looking at ROI in 2019-2020, the courses led to the creation of 167 new remote job placements in rural counties, which are equivalent to the economic impact of over 6,154 jobs in urban counties. Further, a survey of participants from September 2019 to August 2020 showed 20% of respondents to the survey found a job in remote work. Of those who did not, 90% were confident in their ability to find remote work. 

Overall, participants who found remote work experienced a 38% increase in median salary on average, according to the survey report. 

“We’re winning jobs one person at a time,” Hill said. “We’re investing in the human capital and these people are rural who have skills and have the tools they need as well as we’re very blessed to have the broadband and solid fiber lines. We have the piping there. It’s just a matter of upscaling.” 

Creating a job in rural Utah means there’s one less commuter on the roads and the worker stays involved in their community, he added.

“It allows people in these communities to stay in these communities. To volunteer, to be involved in public service and there is one less person on the road polluting,” he said. 

For Murice Miller, 40, staying in the eastern Utah town of Moab was paramount. 

“I always try to bring entrepreneurship here, and I saw an advertisement for a remote worker training and said yes,” he said. This was before the pandemic and not as many people were interested in remote work, but he was very excited about it, he said. 

“I have an abundance of ideas,” Miller said of his entrepreneurial spirit. And he was able to narrow down some of his ideas and become more organized. 

Now he has more time with his family, and they help him with his business, which is developing a coloring book series.

“Through that course, it helped me to narrow my focus and enhance some skills I had already,” Miller added. 

Hill noted that rural counties usually have unemployment 1 to 4 percentage points higher than the statewide unemployment rate. 

“So we look at that number – how do we get that down so that we’re more aligned with the state and things are more evenly distributed?” he said. “It’s really not that much, so if we can target those communities, those counties, it’s only going to take 25 people to drop your unemployment rate – that’s big.” 

Though Hill believes bringing in businesses to communities is a strategy that can still work under the right circumstances, he believes it has its drawbacks. 

“It’s really not a viable strategy anymore,” he added. “And so, should it be abandoned completely? No. But economic development professionals need to rethink what their job is and to be involved in remote work training programs like ours and others or develop their own.”

The Internet is an affordable community asset, Hill said, making a remote job the best option for someone wishing to stay in a rural area of the state. 

Moriah Hacopian, 40, was previously working a corporate job but wanted to provide herself opportunities to engage in different businesses to sustain her lifestyle. Hacopian ended up starting a skincare business and has become a notary public. 

“I got involved mostly for education and to promote that path that I had been trying to go on,” she said of taking the ROI course. “I really wanted to expand my ability to be able to work from home but also put it on my resume to connect with other businesses who had the capabilities to work from home.”

This article was supported in part by the Solutions Journalism Network