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New Opportunities In Rural Utah

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

By Rebecca Dilg, Rural Community and Outreach Manager, Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Throughout history, people have consistently migrated from rural areas to cities, where opportunities for education, employment, transportation and commerce are more significant. It’s no different today as evidenced along the Wasatch Front where the economy is booming, but a drought of jobs continues to plague rural Utah, driving out-migration.

There has been little to reverse this trend until now. The same technology which pushes people to cities can be utilized to do the reverse — allowing people to stay and live, or move, to a rural life. Because of robust broadband networks across the state, many rural counties often have better coverage and speeds than those along the Wasatch Front. These opportunities are now expanded with a grant incentive from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) where businesses on the Wasatch Front can benefit by hiring people in rural counties.

The Rural Economic Development Initiative, or REDI, will allocate grant money up to $25,000 for businesses willing to create new, high-paying positions in rural fourth- to sixth-class Utah counties (populations of less than 31,000), targeted as the most disadvantaged of the counties. These businesses can be located anywhere — only the employees must work in these counties. That means a company can be located in Piute County or on the Wasatch Front, employing a remote, online worker who enjoys the fresh rural air.

It doesn’t take a rocket or computer scientist to see how easy it is for IT, web-based, or software development companies to benefit from the grant and get skilled employees at lower wages. Even at the REDI grant’s required 125 percent of the county’s average salary, employing rural workers is more economical than paying employees on the Wasatch Front.

This “thinking-outside-the-box (or city)” idea is gaining momentum. One company that has already successfully ventured forth is Accelerant. It established a satellite hub in Price, Utah for its Wasatch Front client, Health Equity. Accelerant employs mostly women in their 30s and 40s as customer service representatives. It’s a different dynamic from typical customer service employees on the Wasatch Front, says Accelerant CEO Joel Smith: “They’re working to make a living and support their family’s lifestyle.” He says there are fewer turnovers and greater employee affinity than in the same jobs in big cities.

Smith describes the people in rural counties as having a great work ethic. Many have degrees, but because of their rural location, they have been employed in positions such as teacher aids, barely earning a minimum wage. The REDI program intends to increase opportunities in rural Utah.

Dean Lundberg, president of Accelerant, gets excited when he thinks about those opportunities: “With the unemployment rate as low as 2.9% on the Wasatch Front, tech companies can’t find enough talent and are paying loads of money to bring candidates into Silicon Slopes. With training, the rural counties are producing good quality, if not better, more satisfied candidates. The cost of living is less, and is without the cannibalism experienced along the Wasatch Front.”

Both Google and Amazon are actively hiring online employees from “virtual” service customer representatives to remote software development engineers. Wouldn’t it be great to see companies along the Wasatch Front do the same? As Lundberg said, “If we can keep it all in the family, it will bring additional economic value flowing throughout Utah.”

Accelerant is ready to launch its next level of virtual training with avatar instructors, leveraging the REDI grant for its clients. “It’s a game changer for us,” said Lundberg.

Utah State University Extension has been leading another charge to establish online training for potential remote candidates. The Rural Online Initiative (ROI) is a sister bill to REDI. It also passed during the 2018 legislative session supporting the governor’s rural jobs growth initiative of 25,000 jobs in 25 rural counties by 2020. The program administered by USU will provide online job training at the high school and college level in pilot rural counties for freelance and remote work.

Beyond the grant initiative, USU is also developing a unique course for executives to learn how to lead remote, online distributed teams and departments.

Ginger Chinn, GOED’s director of Rural and Urban Business Services, sees the REDI program as a way for all boats to rise with the proverbial Utah tide. Businesses will get the grant, great employees and potentially lower payroll expenses without the additional cost of providing workspaces: “We’re hoping the REDI money can help these companies get motivated to try employing qualified rural workers.”

To learn more about REDI, visit business.utah.gov/rural.