Pandemic speeds up influx of remote workers to small cities
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Rising from the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, just south of the Canadian border, this distant city looks like a quaint throwback, with Victorian-era architecture, church steeples and a main shopping street laid with brick.
It’s a picture postcard of a New England community, slow-paced and scenic, whose biggest employers are the hospital and the university and whose most notable exports include ice cream, craft beer and snowboards.
Just beneath the surface, however, Burlington has become home over the last few years to an invisible economy of people who work remotely for the world’s biggest technology businesses, including Apple, Google, Twitter and IBM, hundreds and even thousands of miles from these companies’ chic and sprawling headquarters.
Exactly how many remote workers live in Burlington “is hard to gauge because we all are sort of like hermit crabs in our own little shells and under our own little rocks,” said Tyler Littwin, art director at the marketing software developer HubSpot, who moved here from HubSpot’s headquarters outside Boston and started telecommuting in 2013.
But there are clearly a lot — so many that locals have a name for them. They call them “the remotes.”
“Pre-pandemic, on a weekly basis, I’d be talking to somebody at a coffee shop and find out that somebody’s husband or wife was also a remote worker,” Littwin said.
Since Covid-19 scattered people from their offices, this trend appears to be speeding up dramatically, with more young, well-paid and well-educated people relocating permanently from big metropolitan areas such as Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and New York to Burlington, population just under 43,000, and other small cities across the country.
It’s a shift that could revitalize these places, change the way many Americans choose where to live and widen the supply of workers for employers that are struggling to fill jobs in high-demand fields, even during a recession.
“What Covid has allowed is this whole awakening to remote work,” said David Bradbury, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. Among other things, the organization runs a coworking space where some of the remotes occasionally hang out in part of an old telephone company building in Burlington that once held banks of directory assistance operators. “It has been growing over time and these trends have only accelerated under the pandemic.”
The number of people who moved to Burlington in the spring from bigger cities was double what it was during the same period last year, according to the national real estate brokerage Redfin. And that only counted as the fourth-biggest increase among the nation’s small metropolitan areas.
The number of people who moved to Burlington, Vermont, in the spring from bigger cities was double what it was during the same period last year. And that only counted as the fourth-biggest increase among the nation’s small metropolitan areas.
The other top destinations, based on the increase in the number of new arrivals this spring over last spring: Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, California, which attracted people mainly from Los Angeles; Louisville, Kentucky, and Buffalo, New York, which drew refugees primarily from New York City; El Paso, Texas (principal city of origin: Los Angeles), Little Rock, Arkansas (Los Angeles), Tulsa, Oklahoma (Los Angeles), Greenville, South Carolina (New York City), Knoxville, Tennessee (Chicago), and Syracuse, New York (New York City). The city from which the largest number of people moved to Burlington was Boston.
There’s no way to predict if these migrants will set down permanent roots, although many have bought homes. But a third of those who moved to Vermont said they are likely or very likely to stay for good, according to a survey by the University of Vermont’s Center for Research on Vermont and the Vermont Futures Project.
|Metro area||Increase in migration, spring 2020 vs. spring 2019||Principal city of origin||Median home price in September|
|Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, Calif.||124%||Los Angeles||$855,000|
|Louisville, Ky.||113%||New York||$229,000|
|Buffalo, N.Y.||107%||New York||$190,000|
|El Paso, Tex.||101%||Los Angeles||$183,000|
|Little Rock, Ark.||82%||Los Angeles||$181,000|
|Tulsa, Okla.||80%||Los Angeles||$210,000|
|Greenville, S.C.||79%||New York||$236,000|
|Syracuse, N.Y.||74%||New York||$169,000|
|Source: Redfin national real estate brokerage|
That works out to somewhere between 8,700 and 10,900 new Vermonters, the local economics firm EPR projects. A quarter of remote workers who come to Vermont settle in and around Burlington, the UVM research shows; 40 percent are under age 35 and 92 percent have college educations.
It’s a big boost in a state whose population is just 623,989, the nation’s second smallest (just before Wyoming) and second oldest (just after Maine), with the lowest birth rate, and whose number of residents has declined in six out of the last 10 years.
“Nobody was moving here until this,” said Richard Watts, the Center for Research on Vermont’s director.
The escalating cost of housing in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco Bay, Seattle and Los Angeles is the most common reason workers are choosing to leave those places, Redfin reports, especially since Covid-19 restrictions have made them question what they’re getting for their money.
“We all are sort of like hermit crabs in our own little shells and under our own little rocks.”
Tyler Littwin, a remote worker who lives in Burlington, Vermont
Before Covid-19, “it wasn’t a big enough trend for anyone to notice, but the pandemic has kind of poured gasoline on it,” said Jason Tyszko, vice president of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Simply put, Bradbury said, “Folks are asking, ‘If I can’t go out in New York and do my thing, why am I paying for it?’ ”
Sixty-six percent of professionals who work in technology, finance and other fields would consider leaving the San Francisco area if they could permanently work from home, according to a survey conducted in the spring by Blind, an online forum for workers in those industries; 63 percent said they would leave Seattle and 69 percent that they would leave New York.
There are also more ephemeral reasons people move away from big tech hubs.
Dave Voutila, a sales engineer for the database management company Neo4j, left Boston for Burlington six years ago to work remotely. “The anxiety level in the Boston area is palpable, at least in my opinion,” said Voutila, “I just didn’t want that any more.”
What recommends small cities, he and others said, is that they have a more relaxed vibe without sacrificing vibrant culture, decent restaurants and other conveniences.
On the down side, said Voutila, there’s nowhere in Burlington to get a good burrito at 2 a.m. Working from home also can be isolating, though Burlington’s remotes have their own hyperactive Slack channel — membership has soared since March — and during pre-Covid times had frequent in-person social gatherings and Meetup groups for the gamers and robotics enthusiasts among them.
From the cities’ point of view, new arrivals with high pay can exacerbate income inequality and push up housing prices, already steep in Burlington and forecast by Zillow to rise another 6.2 percent over the next year.
“Telling people that we’ll pay you this amount but you can live wherever you want is going to just be very attractive to a lot of really high-level talent.”
Sierra Allred, a machine-learning engineer who works remotely from Burlington, Vermont
“As you have this influx of new, higher-starting-income jobs, you get this crowding out effect,” said Jordan Nickerson, visiting professor of finance at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “So gentrification speeds up. People who were living there can’t afford to buy a place, so you do see displacement, and that’s a very sensitive subject.”
Already, in the fast-growing South Carolina remote-worker destination of Greenville, housing in “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. “And we’re only on the very leading edge of this.”
On the other hand, the average age declines and level of education rises.
“It’s great for small cities as a general rule,” said Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville — another of the communities that’s benefitting from the movement — whose own daughter moved back there when her company in Baltimore went remote. “You’re basically bringing skilled workers into your city who are otherwise very difficult to get here.”
Remote work generally doesn’t pollute or bring the other risks of more conventional economic growth, Bradbury said in a conference room at the coworking hub. Outside in the common area are a ping-pong table, exercise balls, plastic dinosaurs, an antique pay phone and other playthings, surrounded by exposed brick and reclaimed wood.
“If you want to build an economy in a rural area today, you couldn’t ask for higher-wage people coming to work here that are bringing their own health-care benefits, they are adding new skills and energy,” he said. And considering Vermont’s demographic stagnation, “hopefully they’re coming with a couple kids or that’s in their road map as a family. So that’s very positive.”
Before Covid-19, “it wasn’t a big enough trend for anyone to notice, but the pandemic has kind of poured gasoline on it.”
Jason Tyszko, vice president, Center for Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
In 2018, in fact, Vermont offered to pay the relocation expenses of remote workers who agreed to move here. The program attracted 140 people from 38 states who were given an average $3,571 apiece before the funding ran out in January; an additional 107 had submitted applications by then or have since, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development said.
“To be honest, most of the people I talked to had already been thinking about Vermont, and that was kind of the push they needed to come” — even before the pandemic gave things an even bigger shove — said Maureen McElaney, who has been working remotely from Burlington since 2016 for IBM as a developer advocate and is an informal leader among the remotes who helps administer their Slack channel.
Taking note of the accelerating numbers, UVM researchers are proposing that the state brand itself the nation’s “work-from-home” capital.
If remote work continues to expand at this pace, it also could help employers cast a wider net for talent they say they’ve been having trouble finding in the places where technology companies are concentrated.
“The fact that everybody thinks all the talent is in Boston and California drives me crazy,” said Linda Schadler, dean of engineering and mathematics at UVM.
Despite the Covid crisis — and in some cases, because of it — there is high demand for such workers as software developers, IT support specialists and systems engineers, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA.
“What Covid has allowed is this whole awakening to remote work. It has been growing over time and these trends have only accelerated under the pandemic.”
David Bradbury, president, Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies
Many of the companies that are increasingly letting their workers live anywhere are in the technology sector, which now accounts for a tenth of the economy and employs a labor force of 12 million, CompTIA says.
“It theoretically widens the pool in a way that can benefit companies because they can access a greater pool of talent,” said Tyszko, though he cautioned that “it’s going to take time” for companies to change their habits of recruiting in only certain places. “Even though we can cast a larger net, it doesn’t mean we will.”
High-demand workers have leverage, however, and are already using it.
“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, which was nice.”
These professionals are “highly skilled and maybe had a little bit of market power, pre-Covid, to say, ‘I want to work remotely if you want me,’ ” Bradbury said. He sees a “trend toward the edges to find talent” now in places such as Burlington.
John Pascarella, manages special projects, also remotely, from Burlington, for Apple. He’s watched the evolution from close up, he said. “I’ve seen tech companies go from just a few hundred employees to thousands of employees working remotely.”
Recruiters already are listing remote work on employment websites created for that purpose, such as Outer Join, which launched in September and focuses on data science, analytics and engineering jobs. The number of IT postings employers specify can be done remotely has increased 58 percent so far this year compared to the same period last year, CompTIA reports. “In terms of supply, that niche isn’t so niche-y any more. It’s becoming a lot more mainstream,” said Rich Thornett, Outer Join’s founder.
Working remotely “is something that I think people in the tech world, people who code, have been rooting for for a long time,” said Sierra Allred, a machine-learning engineer who does that for a tech company in Utah from Burlington, where she moved this year. “Telling people that we’ll pay you this amount but you can live wherever you want is going to just be very attractive to a lot of really high-level talent.”
Employers will eventually get this, too, said Dan York, director of web strategy and project leader for the Virginia-based Internet Society, who moved to Burlington in 2018.
“Many people who were doubters before are now learning,” York said. “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. They may be in other places like that.”
This story about small cities and the skills shortage was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with Vermont Public Radio. Additional reporting by Liam Elder-Connors. Graphic by Pete D’Amato. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.
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