Remote reality: Agreeable bosses, speedy internet remaking work in Sandhills
More Nebraskans, including those in small towns like Valentine, are choosing to work remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased access to broadband in rural communities helps make that choice feasible.
The following is a story from Greater Nebraska reporter Natalia Alamdari that was originally published on Flatwater Free Press, SPN’s sister publication.
VALENTINE – In his spare-room-turned-office, Hunter Miller boots up his three computer screens to start his workday with the engineering firm Olsson.
Olsson’s corporate headquarters are in the heart of Lincoln.
Miller is 300 miles away in Valentine. He lives there with his fiancee, who grew up in this Sandhills city of 2,621 people.
Miller, an assistant roadway design engineer from Stromsburg, never thought he’d be able to live in a place the size of his hometown while working the job he wanted.
Then COVID-19 happened. Everything went online. Suddenly, what seemed impossible became possible.
“We probably wouldn’t have left Lincoln if I didn’t have the opportunity to work remotely,” Miller said. “But now, I’m not leaving.”
The number of Nebraskans working remotely has skyrocketed from 46,436 in 2019 to 110,093 last year, according to a U.S Census Bureau annual survey. Still, Nebraska lags most of the rest of the country when it comes to remote work.
But in towns like Valentine, leaders are hoping that greater workplace flexibility, paired with recent moves to expand broadband, will lure more remote workers like Miller – professionals with jobs typically reserved for Nebraska’s metro areas who would, if possible, rather live in a small town.
It’s already happening, says Valentine Mayor Kyle Arganbright. Before the pandemic, the Valentine native could name only a few remote workers living in town. Last fall he started to count.
He counted 15. Then 25. Then at least 30.
That’s noticeable growth for a town like Valentine, Arganbright said, and it hasn’t happened by accident. Valentine greatly improved its broadband offerings in the past two years, partnering with the Nebraska-based internet company Allo to get the entire city fiber internet access.
“It was becoming, to me, a barrier for entry for businesses and people in many rural communities. And we didn’t want that barrier in Valentine,” Arganbright said. “It helps create a place that people can grow professionally without having to uproot and move to a different location.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was a “bit of a wake-up call” for the need for internet in rural communities – and the funding needed to make it happen, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, extension specialist with Rural Prosperity Nebraska.
The 2021 federal infrastructure law set aside $405 million to get Nebraskans online. Since 2021, Nebraska’s Legislature has also put millions of dollars toward bringing broadband to underserved communities.
Just like public funding helped bring telephone lines into rural America in the 20th century, it’s necessary to usher in internet in the 21st, said Burkhart-Kriesel. And like sewage, electricity and water, reliable internet has become a necessity, she said.
Long-shrinking rural communities can use broadband as one way to keep people in town – and attract new residents, too, according to Burkhart-Kriesel and other rural experts.
“The community and economic development question has really changed,” said Jeff Yost, president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation. “It used to be a question of jobs, and now, it’s really a question of place … Because with remote work, we have all these choices.”
In Valentine, city leaders started grappling with broadband years before the pandemic.
“We knew it was bad,” Arganbright said. “You couldn’t expeditiously download large files or movies. You couldn’t stream successfully. Video calls were a no-go, you’d freeze the whole time.”
Then, the pandemic hit. Churches streamed services. Parents attended Zoom meetings while their kids attended Zoom school.
“The conversation went from an opportunity to a problem,” Arganbright said.
Valentine soon started talks with Allo, an Imperial-founded company known for laying fiber in rural Nebraska towns.
They tried to get state funds to blanket Valentine with high-speed internet, but the state denied the grant request. CenturyLink claimed it was already providing high-speed internet to homes in town, Arganbright said. This disqualified the city’s project since state grants were set aside for underserved areas.
“Realistically, there were like two to five houses in town that were getting that, because it was close enough to (CenturyLink’s) equipment,” Arganbright said.
So Valentine decided to do it on its own.
An internet and cable provider – Three River Digital – was already planning on ending service in Valentine. The city bought the company’s existing infrastructure then leased it to Allo. Valentine’s city council unanimously approved using $400,000 in city electrical revenue to have Allo build fiber within city limits, Arganbright said.
In return, Valentine gets a 5% cut from every customer Allo connects to fiber cable, for as long as Allo remains in town. Valentine is already seeing a 10% annual return, Arganbright said, and he expects the city to make back its investment in 12 years.
Internet access allows more people to work remotely, Arganbright said, but just as crucial is employers like Olsson’s newfound willingness to accommodate remote workers like Miller.
When the engineer found out his fiancee had gotten a job with Valentine Community Schools, he asked his bosses: Can I do my job remotely? They didn’t hesitate.
For eight years, Angelina Wright has worked for Grand Island-based Ducks Unlimited, five of those years from her home in Valentine. She wanted to raise her kids here where she grew up.
Eric Hofferber started looking for a remote job while living in Lincoln. His wife was finishing medical residency, and she’d likely be placed in a rural community in need of doctors. The pair moved to Valentine after she accepted a job at the Cherry County Hospital.
Hofferber secured a job as a medical writer before the move. His Starlink internet lets him video call with pharmaceutical co-workers living in the Philippines.
“This totally changes the ability for one spouse to be able to pursue their dream job without the other spouse having to sacrifice,” Yost said.
The ability to work remote jobs – and the internet to make it possible – expands rural Nebraskans’ professional opportunities and salary possibilities, Arganbright said. And, it brings people into town who are actively choosing to live there.
“They’re more apt to get involved in different things around the community,” Arganbright said. “The bottom line is, if somebody’s in a place where they’re happy, the town’s going to be better.”
Remote work is growing in Nebraska, but it hasn’t gained traction as in other states, said Josie Gatti Schafer, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 2021, 12.3% of working Nebraskans worked from home, ranking 37th in the country. These numbers, she said, cast doubt on a pandemic-era presumption.
“There was this idea that folks would boomerang back to Nebraska to enjoy the good life, but keep their high-paying jobs,” Schafer said. “But it does not seem to be panning out in the data.”
Part of this is because of Nebraska’s workforce, she said. Most workers in Nebraska work in industries that don’t transfer remotely, like health care, maintenance, agriculture and retail.
Workplace culture could be a factor as well. From 2021 to 2022, the number of remote workers in Nebraska declined, as companies started calling people back into the office. Jobs that could be done remotely in Nebraska haven’t made the shift as often or as quickly as other states, Schafer said.
Growing the number of Nebraskans working remotely in small towns will take more than internet access and willing employers, experts said. Nebraskans tend to leave the state for job opportunities, Schafer said. Once there, they get used to a different quality of life.
Being a newcomer in a small town – and adjusting to small-town politics and culture – can be an obstacle as well.
In the year that he’s lived in Valentine, Miller has joined a golf group. He helps coach youth wrestling. He doesn’t see himself leaving Valentine anytime soon.
“Before, it seemed like if you were going to go back to a small town, you either had to commute somewhere for work, your parents had to own land so you could farm it, or your family had to own a business in town,” Miller said.
“The career path that I wanted wasn’t available in a small town,” he said, “until COVID.”
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