All Telework and a Little Play: Remote Employment Could Boost Rural Minnesota


Since telecommuters often can toil from anywhere, a whole lot of people are banking on the notion that the workplace of the future will be located in farmhouses, home kitchens and on small town Main Streets. At a telework summit on Wednesday in Fergus Falls, a full day of presenters made a good case that the transition is already underway.

Fergus Falls, which has had robust fiber internet since the late '90s and dubs itself the "telework capital of Minnesota," uses technology to the hilt.

In the public schools there, some teachers film their lectures and place them online, so students can watch lessons at night and work on problems during class. They use touch pad computers to teach reading; the teacher reads a book into the touch pad slowly, at medium speed and then quickly so the student can listen along while perusing an electronic book. They also have students write papers in Google Docs so teachers can monitor real-time progress.

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The Internet has made it possible for Fergus Falls schools to teach remote students, via its iQ Academy Minnesota; many never set foot inside a classroom. "This is how you fight declining enrollment," said schools superintendent Jerry Ness of the two-year-old program. "We have teachers from all over the state teaching our students from all over the state. Public schools aren't used to competition. We're used to collaboration. Now what's happening is these school districts have to be very, very mobile. We have to be competitive."

Ness acknowledged that telelearning isn't for everyone. "The most successful students tend to be home-school students where the parents are helping," he said. "It's not a place for students who tried the regular school and it didn't work. This is self-directed. This is a difficult way to learn. It's a difficult way to teach, too."

Teaching remotely does offer up-sides. "One of our teachers didn't have to go on maternity leave," he said. "She's at home taking care of her child, but is a full-time teacher. It works."

Ness added that today's remote learners are tomorrow's remote workers.

That was music to the ears of some of the company executives in attendance. Corporations from Microsoft to Blue Cross use teleworkers to an increasing degree (according to one speaker, 20 percent of Microsoft's current employees work from home at least some of the time). That's because telecommuting is good for the bottom line, as individual productivity can increase as much as 30 percent, overhead costs decline, and hiring younger workers becomes easier. A diffuse workforce also can help in case of disasters, such as floods, should the main office become disabled.

"Remote talent will connect with businesses like never before," said Alec Young of Masterson Personnel. "So many industries will be able to reach into communities that aren't being reached right now." He said using teleworkers will become essential for the bottom line. "Companies that don't latch onto this, that don't jump on this train, their margins are going to get hit and they will have a tougher time when the economy turns down."

Young said Masterson is developing a program to train and even certify people for particular teleworking skills in order to "market those people to clients in the Twin Cities."

But one outfit is already tapping the rural labor market. "My company is on the leading edge of 'onshoring,'" said Christopher Hytry Derrington, president of Rural America OnShore Outsourcing. Where companies used to look overseas for cheap labor, now they can get bargains in farm country, he said, where wages are depressed and educated people are underutilized.

He pitches his client companies this way: "You don't have to go to China or South America or India to save money. Take your work to rural America."

Derrington says he got the idea when he moved to Two Rivers, Wis., in order to be closer to his wife's family. "A light bulb went on in my head," he said. "If I can hire rural-based Americans who speak the language, are in the same time zone and know the slang and culture--and provide those people as a service--we can build a business out of that. Two and a half years later, we are booming. We have people working in 15 states."

The main requirement is home broadband, which is now expanding into the far reaches, in part because of federal stimulus dollars. "Compliments of the U.S. government," Derrington said, "we're spending billions on a key infrastructure item called broadband. Over 10 million people will be entering the virtual workforce because of broadband. These people are able to work hard and for less than their equivalents in urban areas."

Rick Schara, of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, was the last speaker of the day. "There are a lot of rural areas who could use this strategy," he said. "Work is no longer a place you go, it's what you do."

According to Schara, "One-third of Americans would prefer to live in rural areas." Soon, if the Fergus Falls conference was any indication, they'll be able to do just that.