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Small town jobs growing with research, matchmaking

When you live in Colville, Okanogan or even Pullman, Wash., good job opportunities can be few and far between. Oddly, at the same time, employers in urban areas often grumble about having too limited a pool of trained workers and high employee turnover.

That’s just the nature of living in a small town or locating in an urban area. But it may not be that way much longer.

WSU’s Telework Project is laying the groundwork to help merge and solve both of these problems. In short, when the state’s current limping economy snaps back to life, small rural communities that have worked with the Telework Project may find they are prime targets for employment growth. In fact, it’s already beginning to happen.

Telework, sometimes referred to as telecommuting, is the use of electronic, computer and communication devices allowing people to work from home or a remote facility away from the traditional office one, two or possibly five days a week.

Over the past 13 years, the Telework Project has assisted scores of urban companies establish telework programs. Now, the Telework Project is partnering with communities and corporations to develop corresponding programs in areas statewide.

“This is the best of both worlds,” said Monica Babine, a rural telework specialist with WSU’s Telework Project, based out of Olympia. “It’s a win-win program that provides solutions for employers trying to reduce costs, increase the employment pool and find alternative solutions for disaster management. Plus it creates jobs in high-unemployment areas.

“Companies in urban areas, like Seattle, are seriously considering establishing backup locations and rural telework sites. These sites provide a remote location to which they can back up their data and reroute calls in case of a disaster,” Babine said.

However, cost savings is still the biggest motivator attracting companies to rural telework programs.

Successful strategies

Mapping out successful telework programs is nothing new for this staff. Since 1989, the Telework Project has been working with corporations and government agencies to research and develop telework programs throughout Washington and the United States.

Telework specialists helped establish urban corporate programs in metropolitan areas — especially the Puget Sound region — including companies such as Active Voice, AirTouch Cellular, CH2M Hill, City of Redmond, The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, Hewlett-Packard Company, Seattle Housing Authority, Qwest, Washington Dental Service and Washington Mutual.

Initially, the Telework Project wanted to motivate employers to encourage car pooling and telecommuting, thereby reducing fuel consumption and urban air pollution.

Research resulting from these programs revealed that telework programs were not only successful in reducing fuel consumption, but also in allowing companies to attract and retain qualified employees, increase employee productivity, save facilities space and increase employee job satisfaction.

“When WSU first got involved in the Telework Project nobody was doing it. It was incredibly innovative,” said Dee Christensen, manager of Rural Telework Project. “By 2000, telework programs had become fairly institutionalized in the business world. So, we began looking for the next logical step, which was using the advancements in telecommunications and computing to expand this concept to link the needs of rural areas and corporations.”

Rural communities — with higher unemployment rates — had both the need and the potential to become workforce sources for corporations and agencies. The challenge was helping those communities “bridge the digital divide” — specifically, establishing high-speed Internet connections, developing relationships with interested employers, and training the local workforce necessary to meet specific needs.

About two years ago, the Telework Project landed seed money from the state Office of Trade and Economic Development, U.S. Forest Service and Washington Mutual Foundation. Based on that study, the Telework Project then netted a $514,000 two-year grant in 2001 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin work.

Success underway
The “Rural” Telework Project is working with several communities including Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Spokane counties, with targeted efforts in Forks, Colville and Deer Park. Project staff are working closely with extension offices in those areas as well as with WSU’s Center to Bridge the Digital Divide.

For example, Washington Dental Service (WDS), the state’s largest dental insurance provider, has leased and equipped a call center in Colville, where up to 70 employees can handle customer service, data entry and bill processing. Since February, 32 people have trained and begun work there. The project was spearheaded by the Telework Project and the Tri-County Economic Development District, which represents Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties. Together, they have partnered with WDS, Qwest telecommunications and Community Colleges of Spokane to attract state and federal funding, develop the telework facility, recruit and train employees, and bring in high-speed Internet access.

“It is working really well,” said Heather Kirton, WDS operations manager. “The workforce in Colville is fabulous — high work ethics, high production, high quality and low turnover.

“One of the things we have found that contributes to higher production levels is that there are fewer distractions in Colville. The people are not being pulled into various meetings, which happen fairly frequently at the corporate office, nor are they distracted by client visits,” said Kirton.

Adding to the attraction is a “substantial” reduction in costs. Labor is about 20% lower (which is partially due to job requirements), and facility costs are less than half those in the Seattle area — $10 vs. $22 per square foot.

In addition, WDS has seen a huge leap in the size of its labor pool. In Seattle, when WDS posts a position, Kirton said, it nets between one and four applications. In Colville, the same ad will attract as many as 75 applications, which means the company can be more selective when hiring.

“Our data entry accuracy level in Colville is very high, with the average accuracy score at 99+%. In addition, scores for customer service representatives have been phenomenal,” averaging 50% higher than those in Seattle,” Kirton commented.

Why Colville?
Last year, WDS was looking at several cities in Washington as potential sites for its new satellite office. Kirton said Colville got the nod because it had been working with WSU’s Telework Project and was by far the most prepared.

“They had a strong can-do attitude, the community was ready and willing to work with us, they had the resources in place to make it happen,” Kirton said. “We made the decision to go with Colville in September and had the Colville call center equipped, manned and in operation by February. That’s pretty aggressive.”

Reality is, many rural farming and logging towns are struggling to survive. Introducing telework programs into rural areas opens the door for additional jobs and income, which helps the agricultural and logging communities to endure and possibly thrive.

“The state economy has declined substantially,” said Christensen. “But it will boom again, and when it does, we want rural Washington to be ready to compete for information-based jobs.”

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