by Nika McKechnie, IEDC Intern
Telework and Economic Development
Though teleworking has experienced a gradual rise in popularity in recent years, COVID-19 has greatly expedited a widespread transition to working from home. However, inequitable access to broadband severely limits the ability of some communities to support telework. According to a 2020 report by the Federal Communications Commission, about a quarter of Americans in rural areas and Tribal lands do not have broadband, compared to 1.5 percent in urban areas. Teleworking has become both an essential aspect of workforce development and an opportunity for community growth, so increasing broadband access is a necessity for economic development and recovery.
A Pew Research Center report in May found that jobs that could not be teleworked accounted for 90 percent of the decrease in employment from February to March. For the most part, jobs that involve handling machinery, working outdoors, or interacting closely with other people have not been able to transition to telework. Conversely, according to a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, more than fifty percent of jobs in educational services, finance and insurance, corporate management, scientific and technical services, information, and wholesale trade can be done from home. With unemployment rates rising to historic highs, helping maintain as many jobs as possible by providing broadband and supporting opportunities for telework will be a high priority for economic developers.
Many rural and postindustrial communities have experienced an exodus of workforce to large metropolitan hubs in a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “brain drain”. Telework represents an opportunity to slow this flow, which in turn helps revitalize communities and bolster their tax base. In 2018, Vermont, a state hit hard by brain drain, took advantage of this and implemented the Remote Worker Grant program to provide teleworkers who move to the state with reimbursements for costs like relocation expenses and computer hardware. Rural communities, both most adversely affected by brain drain and least likely to have broadband, will need to expand their connectivity capabilities to attract these remote workers.
Coronavirus and Telework
COVID-19 has made many inequalities starkly apparent, including disparities in teleworking capabilities. Especially in rural areas with limited broadband access, individuals are taking additional health risks by going to the office to avoid unemployment during this economic crisis.
For many communities, being able to support teleworking will be essential for economic recovery from the pandemic. In response to COVID-19, some companies are embracing more long-term telework policies; for example, Facebook and Twitter have both announced that employees can work remotely permanently. COVID-19 may also contribute to a decline in the popularity of living in dense urban centers as it has revealed the health hazards and healthcare limitations of metropolitan areas. This represents an opportunity for communities to attract remote workers, helping to bolster their recovering economies.
How to Help
If you are interested in improving your community’s teleworking capabilities, there are programs specifically designed to aid in broadband access for telework. One such example is the Rural Innovation Initiative, a program by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) that helps rural communities improve their digital economies. A key component of the initiative is providing consulting and strategization for broadband implementation. Recognizing how essential telework is for employment in a modern economy, CORI works with communities in developing an engineering design, business plan, and grant strategy for their unique broadband needs.
There are many other local and federal funding opportunities for expanding broadband, many of which can be found using the Broadband USA database. A later article in this series on Restore Your Economy will also provide more specific information on how to fund broadband in your community.