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Grant to Help Bring Telework Jobs to Rural Washington

PULLMAN, Wash. — A $514,000 grant from the Fund for Rural America to the Washington State University Energy Program will help solve employment problems in rural Washington communities and also provide benefits to employers in metropolitan areas.

The two-year grant will allow WSU to help establish telework jobs in three rural areas of the state — Okanogan County, the town of Forks in Clallam County, and the northeastern corner of the state (Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties and Deer Park.)

The areas were selected because they have struggling natural resource-based economies, high unemployment, low-wage jobs and an out-migration of young adults. The areas also have strong local teams working to improve their telecommunications infrastructure and find ways to strengthen their economy.

“In our information-based economy, more and more jobs can be done away from the central office,” says Dee Christensen, telecommunications unit manager. “The goal of WSU’s Rural Telework Project is to demonstrate that many of these jobs can be accomplished effectively from rural areas resulting in benefits for rural communities and urban employers alike, Christensen said.

“Many urban businesses suffer from high real estate costs and traffic congestion problems that negatively impact worker productivity. These problems are forcing some urban businesses to consider relocation or growth outside the urban cores.”

Christensen describes the rural telework project a win-win strategy for rural communities and urban employers. “It brings badly needed jobs to rural communities,” she said. “At the same time it provides urban employers with a lower operating cost. “They save on reduced turnover, facilities expenses, lower utility costs, and wages, while getting skilled employees who have a strong work ethic.”

You might even say the project is one for the best of times and for the worst of times. When the economy is booming, urban employers have difficulty finding enough workers. When the economy is sliding, businesses have an even stronger incentive to reduce costs.

WSU will use the grant to bring urban employers together with rural citizens who are interested in telework. Christensen says WSU will seek three to six employers who will participate in the project and hopes to help create 20 to 40 jobs.

Washington Dental Service will be the first employer to participate in the rural telework project. WDS announced earlier this week that it will establish 30 new jobs in Colville by the second quarter of 2002. The Rural Telework Project is preparing rural communities to be ready to respond when companies like WDS looks for a site to expand their operations.

Christensen says rural telework is effective for a broad range of jobs, especially for “knowledge” or “information” workers. Possibilities include data managers, medical transcriptionists, software programmers, project managers, writers, claims adjusters, reservationists, and many back-office functions.

The university will help establish working relationships between target communities and urban employers, identify necessary job skills for telework, and work with community teams and employers to identify qualified applicants and job-specific training needs. The project also includes a research component to measure impacts and document lessons learned.

Although the use of telework may not have grown as rapidly as projected, the number of teleworkers continues to steadily increase. The International Telework Association and Council report the number of teleworkers in the United States jumped from 19.6 million in October, 1999, to 23.6 million in October, 2001 and could reach 30 million by 2004. In Washington, 34 percent of urban employers have telework programs and have made the cultural and business practice changes necessary for telework to succeed.

The USDA grant continues WSU’s rural telework activities begun earlier this year with funding from the Washington State Office of Trade and Economic Development, U.S. Forest Service and Washington Mutual Foundation.

For more information contact Christensen at (360) 956-2024 or christensend@energy.wsu.edu.

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