Credit: Glenn Carstens / Unsplash

On the list of ideas for tackling the twin challenges that plague Montana workers — scarce rural jobs and low wages even in cities — telework is close to the top.

As better internet access connects even far-flung rural communities with the rest of the world, it seems to promise Montanans a way to have their cake and eat it too: a fulfilling career at a city wage without having to leave the Last Best Place.

The notion has been embraced by business leaders and officeholders across the state, most notably, former tech entrepreneur-turned-U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte, who once mailed thousands of brochures to Montana college graduates imploring them to “come home to Montana” and has spoken of telecommuting as allowing ranch spouses to “earn a national wage in a rural community.”

“The reality is that the Internet has removed geography as a constraint,” Gianforte said in Missoula during a 2015 “Bring Our Families Back” tour that presaged his 2016 bid for governor. “Our graduates can live virtually anywhere in Montana and work for Fortune 500 companies with global client bases.”

Telecommuting has been a boon for some in Montana, but the remote work landscape isn’t quite as flat as its boosters sometimes claim. Geography — particularly access to education and professional networks — still shapes the careers of Montanans who aspire to pair national opportunity with rural lifestyles.

There are companies hiring Montanans for work-from-home positions such as customer service jobs, said Montana High Tech Business Alliance director Christina Henderson. But the typical remote worker in the state is someone with big-city experience who has found a way to bring their job with them to Montana.

“It’s much more common for remote workers to be mid- to late-career, and to have highly valuable skill sets,” she said.

Networked versus networking

The Montana-based remote workers interviewed for this piece — all in tech sector jobs — said they tend to like the arrangement because it allows them to avoid the cubicle and manage their own schedules.

But they also acknowledge the barriers that telecommuting poses to the social aspects of their work. Whether made online or through old-fashioned facetime, professional connections that let workers pass along job leads and swap tips on new technologies are a key asset in knowledge-based industries, especially for younger less-established workers.

Missoula software engineer Chris Downie, for example, started his career in Seattle with Microsoft and Amazon. He moved to Montana about four years ago because his wife wanted to live somewhere less crowded. He relocated without quitting his then job and, in the years since, has continued to work remotely even as he’s taken other positions. He currently works for an Atlanta-based mobile app company, he said.

Downie says he likes the flexibility, which makes it easier to “err on the side of life” when negotiating work-life balance. He’s also earning more than he would for the same work at a Missoula-based company, he said.

Even so, Downie doesn’t think he’d start a career remotely.

“Remote mentorship is difficult,” he said. “A very good fast track on your career is to be at a company with a good mentorship program.”

He also said that working from home instead of an office means he has to be more deliberate about finding social outlets. He regularly attends Missoula coding meetups and is active in a Slack messaging group that serves as a virtual water cooler for western Montana techies.

Because having professional community available in and outside of tech circles is important to him, Downie said he isn’t sure he’d want to work from a smaller town.

“Who would my social group be?” he said.

Do teleworkers choose Montana?

Reliable data on the number of Montana remote workers and their wages aren’t readily available. The state sometimes is cited as having one of the highest telecommuting rates in the nation, but that figure is based on U.S. Census data that comes from a survey question about commuting that measures the number of people working at home instead of driving or walking to work. That means the census figure includes home-based local businesses and excludes remote workers who habitually travel to coffee shops or co-working spaces.

However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has shifted much of its white-collar workforce to full-time remote status since the passage of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, provides one example with hard data.

Gianforte has touted the office’s remote work program and, as one of his first acts in Congress, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to renew a program that makes it easier for staff at the patent office and other federal agencies to work remotely on a full-time basis outside the commuting radius of a physical office.

The patent office, which also encourages part-time telework, says the practice saves its employees commuting time and gas money and also allows them to live outside the pricey Washington, D.C. housing market.

Over the last eight years, the patent office has seen about a fifth of its 13,000 workers shift into full-time remote roles. But most of them haven’t landed far from its Alexandria, Virginia headquarters, according to a patent office report and a database of federal workers.

The number of patent employees teleworking from Montana in 2017 was four.

Patent workers living in Montana don’t appear to have settled in the rural areas that have been largely excluded from the state’s recent job growth. The patent office wouldn’t say where in the state its telecommuters are based, citing employee privacy, but Gianforte told the Billings Gazette last year that Montana had patent examiners in Bozeman, Butte, Billings, and Missoula.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office remote employment trend
Credit: Eric Dietrich / Long Streets Project

The Montana patent examiners, part of a highly-educated workforce where a science or engineering degree comes standard, are paid well: An average of $121,760, according to March 2018 data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. That’s more than twice the $52,200 a year the U.S. Census Bureau says is the median income for Montana workers with graduate degrees. A fifth Montana employee, a patent administrator newly listed in the state in 2018, has a doctorate, 19 years of federal service, and a $164,200 salary.

Gianforte’s office did not make him available for an interview for this piece, but provided a statement through spokesman Travis Hall:

“In the next Congress, I will continue working with the Trump administration and members of both parties on opportunities to improve Montana’s broadband infrastructure, expand telework options with the federal government, and bring more good-paying jobs to Montana.”

Rural opportunities

Remote workers may tend to clump within commuting distance of cities when they choose Montana, but there may also be promise in telecommuting for Montana workers who already live in small towns in certain fields.

Event marketing materials company, for example, says it has customer service representatives successfully working from home in small towns in central Montana. CEO Lance Trebesch, of Bozeman, said the company employs a seven-person customer support team working remotely from Billings, Columbus, Lewistown, Big Timber, and a ranch outside Two Dot. (The company’s main production facility is in Harlowton, population: 1,000.)

The customer service reps are trained in person but work independently, Trebesch said. They use web-connected software for calls, messages and tracking customer orders. The job, he said, takes a certain level of computer savvy, but also a work ethic and genuine kindness — traits they can hire for in rural Montana.

“We have found amazing people in the small towns,” said Trebesch, who added that he wishes more Montana CEOs would look outside Bozeman or Missoula for “underutilized” talent. “You can absolutely train people to do this job wherever they are.”

Edited by Derek Brouwer.

This story was originally published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends and values of importance to Montanans.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.