WILLMAR — Telecommuting remains slow to catch on in rural Minnesota, but observers see potential for it to grow.
Many workers are interested in having the option of working from home at least some of the time, said Cameron Macht, regional labor market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
“There’s a lot of people who would love to have that opportunity,” he said.
Information released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau ranks Minnesota near the top in the number of workers who telecommute.
The trend was strongest in the Twin Cities and in the regional centers of St. Cloud and Mankato.
The census data echo a report issued last year by Connected Nation that found approximately 22 percent of Minnesota’s overall workforce works from home a few hours a week or more. Sixteen percent of those teleworkers were in rural Minnesota.
The numbers, which represent a sample collected through a residential and business technology assessment, also show that teleworking in Minnesota has increased by two points since 2010.
Many employers are starting to see a role for telecommuting, said Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
“Employers encouraging and being open to that, especially with the workforce today, is so different than it used to be,” she said. “Needing to be in one location just isn’t as necessary.”
Farming remains one of rural Minnesota’s strongest employment categories that doesn’t require commuting to work every day, Macht noted. “A lot of times that’s working from home.”
This has helped boost the statistics for rural Minnesotans who work from home. According to five-year estimates from the Census Bureau’s five-year community survey for 2007-11, 5.1 percent of Minnesotans overall worked from home. But in Renville County it was 7.4 percent, in Swift County it was 8 percent and in Yellow Medicine County it was 8.5 percent.
The Connect Minnesota report found that professional and financial services and the high-tech sector were the most likely statewide to allow their workers to work from home part of the time.
Regionally, a sizable number of workers in service occupations also work from home. Many of these are child care workers who operate home day care centers, Macht said.
Rates are lower for areas such as construction and manufacturing, which require workers to be on site most of the time, he said. “There are certain industries that are more likely to allow telecommuting than others.”
Increasing opportunities for rural workers to telecommute is seen as one way communities can be competitive in the job market. It also “absolutely” is an incentive for skilled individuals to stay in a rural area instead of moving to the suburbs where career opportunities might be more plentiful, Spaulding said.
A key challenge, however, is access to broadband, which is often both expensive and unevenly available in rural areas, especially those that are more remote.
“We’ve heard that a lot,” Macht said. “If you have high-speed Internet, in theory you can work anywhere.”