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

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Church Street is a central shopping street in Burlington, Vt., where a pre-pandemic influx of remote workers is increasing as more people are working from home.

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Tyler Littwin, art director at a Boston tech company, decamped to Burlington and has been working from there since 2013.

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David Bradbury, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, says the arrival of high-wage, remote workers is good for rural economies.

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Sales engineer Dave Voutila moved to Burlington six years ago and persuaded his Boston employer to let him keep working remotely.

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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-COVID 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 benefitting 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.

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,’ » said Voutila. «And they let me.»

Recruiters are increasingly listing remote work on employment websites. The number of IT postings employers specify can be done remotely is up 58 percent so far this year compared to 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.»

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