Small Cities Are A Big Draw For Remote Workers During The Pandemic | Connecticut Public Radio
WNPR

Small Cities Are A Big Draw For Remote Workers During The Pandemic

Nov 16, 2020
Originally published on November 16, 2020 1:08 pm

Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET

Rising from the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, just south of the Canadian border, this distant city looks like a quaint throwback, with Victorian-era architecture, church steeples and a main shopping street laid with brick.

But over the last few years, Burlington, Vt., has become home to an invisible economy of people who work remotely for the world's most cutting-edge technology businesses — and the pandemic has only increased the number decamping to this bucolic enclave.

Exactly how many Burlington residents work remotely for companies such as Apple, Google, Twitter and IBM "is hard to gauge because we all are sort of like hermit crabs in our own little shells and under our own little rocks," said Tyler Littwin, art director at the marketing software developer HubSpot. Littwin moved to Vermont from HubSpot's headquarters outside Boston and started telecommuting in 2013.

But there are so many, locals have a name for them. They call them "the remotes."

"Pre-pandemic, on a weekly basis, I'd be talking to somebody at a coffee shop and find out that somebody's husband or wife was also a remote worker," Littwin said.

Tyler Littwin, art director at a Boston tech company, decamped to Burlington and has been working from there since 2013.
Oliver Parini / The Hechinger Report

Since COVID-19 has allowed people to work hundreds or thousands of miles from their company's office, this trend appears to be speeding up dramatically. More young, well-paid and well-educated people are relocating permanently from big metro areas such as Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and New York to small cities such as Burlington, which has a population just under 43,000.

It's a shift that could revitalize these places, change the way many Americans choose where to live and widen the supply of workers for employers struggling to fill jobs in high-demand fields, even during a recession, according to policymakers and economists.

"What COVID has allowed is this whole awakening to remote work," said David Bradbury, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.

David Bradbury, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, says the arrival of high-wage, remote workers is good for rural economies.
Oliver Parini / The Hechinger Report

Among other activities, the organization runs a coworking space in an old Burlington telephone company building, where remote workers occasionally hang out. "It has been growing over time," Bradbury said, "and these trends have only accelerated under the pandemic."

The number of people who moved to Burlington in the spring from bigger cities was double what it was during the same period last year, according to the national real estate brokerage Redfin.

Other top destinations, based on the increase in the number of new arrivals this spring over last spring, included Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; Buffalo, N.Y.; El Paso, Texas; Little Rock, Ark.; Tulsa, Okla.; Greenville, S.C.; and Knoxville, Tenn.

There's no way to predict if these migrants will set down permanent roots, although many have bought homes. But a third of those who moved to Vermont said they are likely or very likely to stay for good, according to a survey by the University of Vermont's Center for Research on Vermont and the Vermont Futures Project.

That works out to somewhere between 8,700 and 10,900 new Vermonters so far this year, the economics firm EPR projects. It's a big boost in a state whose population is just 623,989, making it the nation's second smallest (only Wyoming has fewer people) and second oldest (after Maine).

The most common reason workers say they are leaving places such as San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles is the escalating cost of housing, Redfin reports.

That sensitivity to housing prices is intensified by COVID-19 restrictions that have made residents question what they're getting for their money. Before COVID-19, "it wasn't a big enough trend for anyone to notice, but the pandemic has kind of poured gasoline on it," said Jason Tyszko, vice president of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Sixty-six percent of professionals in technology, finance and other fields would now consider leaving San Francisco if they could permanently work from home, according to a survey by Blind, an online forum for people in those industries; 63% said they would leave Seattle and 69% that they would leave New York.

Sales engineer Dave Voutila moved to Burlington six years ago and persuaded his Boston employer to let him keep working remotely.
Oliver Parini / The Hechinger Report

Dave Voutila, a sales engineer for the database management company Neo4j, moved to Burlington from Boston six years ago to work remotely. What recommends small cities, he and others said, is that they have lower prices and a more relaxed vibe, without sacrificing vibrant culture, decent restaurants and other conveniences.

On the down side, working from home can be isolating, though Burlington's remotes have their own Slack channel — membership has soared since March — and during pre-pandemic times had frequent in-person social gatherings.

From the cities' point of view, new arrivals with high pay can exacerbate income inequality and push up housing prices.

Already, in the fast-growing South Carolina remote-worker destination of Greenville, "the more desirable areas, the downtown, are now out of reach for the people who are from here," said Haro Setian, CEO of the Haro Group, a real estate brokerage there.

On the other hand, these cities' average age often declines and their level of education rises as the newcomers settle in.

"You're basically bringing skilled workers into your city who are otherwise very difficult to get," said Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, another city benefiting from the relocations.

If remote work continues to expand at this pace, it also could help businesses cast a wider net for employees they say they've been having trouble finding. Technology companies in particular struggle to attract enough qualified applicants in the cities where they're based.

"It theoretically widens the pool in a way that can benefit companies because they can access a greater pool of talent," said Tyszko of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

It also gives in-demand workers leverage they are already using.

"I kind of gave my company an ultimatum and said, 'I'm moving here and I'd like to take my job with me,' " Voutila said. "And they let me."

Recruiters are increasingly listing remote work on employment websites. The number of information technology postings employers specify can be done remotely is up 58% so far this year compared with the same period last year, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association.

"Many people who were doubters before are now learning," said Dan York, director of Web strategy and project leader for the Virginia-based Internet Society. He has done that job remotely from Burlington since 2018. "And so I think that has also opened it up that you can find the people, find the talent, wherever they may be. And they may be here in Vermont."

Copyright 2020 The Hechinger Report. To see more, visit The Hechinger Report.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All the remote working that Americans have done since the start of the pandemic is changing the labor market. It can be a good thing for workers, who can now live where they want. And it also means that smaller cities like Burlington, Vt., which we're about to visit here, could benefit. From the Hechinger Report and Vermont Public Radio, Liam Elder-Connors has more.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: Sierra Allred works for a tech company in Salt Lake City, Utah. And she was not expecting to move to Vermont this year. But when her husband got his psychiatric residency in the state, she brought her job with her. Allred works remotely from a town just outside of Burlington, Vermont's largest city. She says the pandemic helped shift her company's attitude about remote work.

SIERRA ALLRED: I know from my co-workers nobody's been back to our office building since the pandemic started. Everybody's been working remotely. And I - it's been going splendidly.

ELDER-CONNORS: Allred says Vermont wasn't her first choice, but it had access to the outdoors and Internet.

ALLRED: I want to be able to work on some algorithms, write some good code, break for lunch and be able to walk out and take a walk down a forest-y path or go sit by the river.

ELDER-CONNORS: Vermont has the second smallest and second oldest population in the country. State leaders have tried for years to find ways to attract more young people like Allred. And what she likes about the Burlington area, its proximity to nature and generally good broadband, has made it ideal for remote working.

David Bradbury, president of Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, says, for years this state has had a small but growing community of remote workers, mostly in tech.

DAVID BRADBURY: It's been building over time. And these trends have only accelerated under pandemic.

ELDER-CONNORS: It's not just workers who stand to benefit from remote options. Companies also have something to gain now that physical location is less of a requirement. Maureen McElaney, a Burlington resident who works for IBM, says remote work opens up a whole new pool of workers. McElaney says her team has been remote since she joined in 2016. And that's made a huge difference in hiring.

MAUREEN MCELANEY: Someone that you've been friends with on Twitter for a few years - you've never met them in real life, but you know that they have the skills you need - you can reach out, and they can join your team.

ELDER-CONNORS: More remote work options could be a big help for smaller cities like Burlington and for Vermont as a whole. Last year, a state program offered grants to remote workers if they moved to Vermont. That initiative brought in 140 new workers. But this year, the pandemic has made Vermont more attractive to new residents.

JEFF CARR: Now the question is, does that continue?

ELDER-CONNORS: Jeff Carr is president of an economic consulting firm based in Vermont. A recent survey by researchers at the University of Vermont found a third of people who moved to the state during the pandemic say they're likely or very likely to stay. Carr estimates that could boost the state's population by almost 11,000. But he says people might leave once there's a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.

CARR: It's up to us to make it sticky by controlling things like, you know, making sure the cost of living is there, that there's affordable housing options for these folks.

ELDER-CONNORS: Allred from Salt Lake City says she and her husband aren't planning to stay in Vermont forever.

ALLRED: We don't know yet where we'll end up, but we're looking - Colorado, Montana, Wyoming. Some of these areas are just breathtaking.

ELDER-CONNORS: All smaller, rural areas where Allred can continue to enjoy the outdoors and, thanks to remote work, keep her job.

For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Burlington, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CANYON WALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.