Do remote workers benefit the economies where they live?

This is part two of our series on the opportunities remote work has brought to Midwest tech workers. Read part one here. Nebraska’s workforce has an approximately 50/50 split between occupations that can easily move remote or online, and more hands-on roles, says Josie Schafer, Ph.D., director of UNO’s Center for Public Affairs.  The latter…

Photo courtesy Adam Nielsen. Photo by Kimberly Bailey.
Photo courtesy Adam Nielsen. Photo by Kimberly Bailey.

This is part two of our series on the opportunities remote work has brought to Midwest tech workers. Read part one here.

Nebraska’s workforce has an approximately 50/50 split between occupations that can easily move remote or online, and more hands-on roles, says Josie Schafer, Ph.D., director of UNO’s Center for Public Affairs. 

The latter includes fields such as agriculture, mining, utilities, construction, manufacturing and transportation and warehousing. 

But for the other half of workers in Nebraska, a growing number of businesses shuttering their offices or focusing their recruiting efforts on remote positions represents an opportunity to get a new role while remaining in the relatively less expensive cost-of-living Midwest.

Adam Nielsen, an Omaha-based product designer who focuses on UI and UX, had a successful consulting and freelance business for many years.

Adam Nielsen. Photo by Kimberly Bailey

The pandemic brought many challenges to Nielsen and his familyNielsen, who has chronic illnesses, was recovering from a bad case of pneumonia that left him unable to work for about a month when COVID shut things down. Because of his health history, Nielsen was deemed high risk for COVID-19 and his doctors told him to not leave his apartment.

“I did have a leg up as far as working from home, having a setup and being accustomed to being by myself and working at my own pace,” Nielsen said, but there were other challenges. “I went from largely having a lot of flexibility to having no flexibility and a family home at the same time.”

His wife working from home, as well as his two children attending remote school, made working difficult in their open-concept space.

With nothing else to do, and not being able to leave his home, Nielsen began working long hours each week for one of his clients, Digit, a San Francisco-based financial health app that has around 100 employees.

“If you’re going to be stuck in a two bedroom apartment, with two kids, a wife and two cats…I just poured my entire time into work,” he said.

When Digit reached out to Nielsen with a full-time job offer, he accepted, having felt comfortable with the project and his coworkers.

“I’m working with people I consider great friends, yet I’ve never met them in person, and I’ve known them for over a year,” he said. “It’s such an interesting thing.”

He likes the company’s philosophy and enjoys working on their product. But Digit, like many other companies, had to pivot to remote-first, Nielsen said. He’s been there for over a month and said it’s been going great. It has been quite a big adjustment, going from working on three to four clients at a time to focusing on one project.

“I’ve never had a ‘real’ job before this,” Nielsen said. “I’ve been self-employed or ran an agency for the last 16 years…I only knew how to make money one way, doing it myself.”

There’s also been one considerable perk.

“This is the first time in my life I know what PTO is,” Nielsen said. 

While the experience of Nielsen—and of Amanda Martinez and Rese Wynn, who were covered in Part One of this series—may provide hope for other tech workers looking to get remote jobs, UNO researcher Josie Schafer says it’s too soon to tell if this is a growing trend. 

“Based on what we know about migration, it tends to be: you are born here (in Nebraska), get an education here, go to higher education here, then you leave for a job,” Schafer said. “We tend to find that the same group of jobs that go online easier are the kinds of jobs that pay more out of state, like finance and technical services.”

Then, these individuals who left may ‘boomerang’ back to the state when they want to start a family.

Schafer hypothesizes that there is probably a set of individuals who lived and worked out of state, with Nebraska roots, who came back to live in the Cornhusker state while their jobs were flexible due to online work. Enticing factors for this scenario include a cheaper cost of living than other traditional tech hubs (like San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and New York City), as well as lower crime rates and excellent public schools, she said.

As for potential hurdles? A lack of reliable, fast internet across the state, particularly in rural areas. Or, as Schafer puts it: “You can’t have a tech job and not have really, really good internet.”

Also, while cost of living is cheaper in Nebraska than states such as New York and California, Schafer says that housing prices in the state are increasing quickly compared to others.

“We are outpacing neighboring states like Iowa, Kansas and Missouri by a lot,” Schafer said. “I don’t think today’s cost of living is driving some of those decisions about working here and living here (in Nebraska). But I think it will be soon.”

While there’s no hard and fast data to back up the thought if local tech workers are getting remote jobs out of state, or if out of state tech workers are moving to Nebraska, Schafer says both opportunities present a positive economic impact opportunity.

Indeed, a handful of Midwest cities are employing programs aimed at enticing remote workers to relocate, including Topeka, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. (For what it’s worth, there’s a similar program in Hawaii.)

“We tend to talk about living, working, and playing in the same place, and that produces economic impact,” Schafer said. “Certainly, it’s less economic impact than if an entire business relocated to the state…But spending everything you earn here, it really speaks to the quality of life here.”

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