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USDA Grant Will Help Okanogan County Employment

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A $514,000 grant from the Fund for Rural America to Washington State University will boost employment in northeastern Washington and two other regions of the state.

Okanogan County is one of three rural areas in Washington targeted for help from the two-year grant to WSU Cooperative Extension’s energy program. The other areas are Forks, Clallam County, and the northwest region–Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties and Deer Park.

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

Rural development leaders in Tonasket hope creation of telework opportunities will make it possible for some of Okanogan County’s graduating high school seniors to stay in their communities.

“One of our most unacceptable exports is the young people who are forced to leave home in order to find work,” says Lael Duncan, board president of Alliance 2005, the county economic development organization.

“This is a community that embraces work with a willing spirit. We look forward to providing our graduates with opportunities to work and raise their families here.

“The telework project is a large part of our overall technology development plan,” Duncan says.

Duncan says Okanogan County possesses a sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure unknown to Western Washington employers. “We have an incredible bandwidth infrastructure, and a large number of potential employees who have highly developed technical skills, or who are eager to be trained in exchange for the opportunity to work in our community,” Duncan says.

Okanogan County’s comprehensive strategic plan targets job growth over the concept of landing one large employer. “We would rather have 10 companies expand by 10 employees than recruit one new company with 100 employees,” Duncan says.

“The beauty of the telework project is that we can potentially employ one hundred people without impact on water, power, and housing infrastructure, but the income from those jobs would be spent primarily in the county.”

Recently the Tonasket School District received funding for technology equipment, community training and for scholarships for graduates of Tonasket High School.

“As part of our economy faces a down turn, we look to technology for new approaches to marketing traditional products as well,” said Duncan.

“The economic gap between Washington’s rural and urban counties is the largest in the nation, based on earnings and unemployment data,” says Dee Christensen, WSU rural telework project manager.

“Meanwhile, urban businesses suffer from high real estate costs and traffic congestion problems that negatively impact worker productivity,” Christensen says. “These problems are forcing some urban businesses to consider relocation or growth outside the urban cores.” The rural telework project is preparing rural communities to be ready to respond when these businesses look 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 where work can be done full time away from the main office. Possibilities include data managers, medical transcriptionists, software engineers, project managers, writers, claims adjusters, reservationists, and many back-office functions.

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 telework jobs.

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 skills. The project also includes a research component to measure impacts and document lessons learned.

The USDA grant continues WSU’s rural telework activities, which began 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 on the Okanogan County Economic Development Strategy, contact Claudia Smith, Alliance 2005 (509)286-5107. For more information about the Rural Telework Project, contact Dee Christensen at (360) 956-2024 or christensend@energy.wsu.edu.

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