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


All the remote working that Americans have done since the start of the pandemic is changing the labor market. It can be a good thing for workers, who can now live where they want. And it also means that smaller cities like Burlington, Vt., which we're about to visit here, could benefit. From the Hechinger Report and Vermont Public Radio, Liam Elder-Connors has more.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: Sierra Allred works for a tech company in Salt Lake City, Utah. And she was not expecting to move to Vermont this year. But when her husband got his psychiatric residency in the state, she brought her job with her. Allred works remotely from a town just outside of Burlington, Vermont's largest city. She says the pandemic helped shift her company's attitude about remote work.

SIERRA ALLRED: I know from my co-workers nobody's been back to our office building since the pandemic started. Everybody's been working remotely. And I - it's been going splendidly.

ELDER-CONNORS: Allred says Vermont wasn't her first choice, but it had access to the outdoors and Internet.

ALLRED: I want to be able to work on some algorithms, write some good code, break for lunch and be able to walk out and take a walk down a forest-y path or go sit by the river.

ELDER-CONNORS: Vermont has the second smallest and second oldest population in the country. State leaders have tried for years to find ways to attract more young people like Allred. And what she likes about the Burlington area, its proximity to nature and generally good broadband, has made it ideal for remote working.

David Bradbury, president of Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, says, for years this state has had a small but growing community of remote workers, mostly in tech.

DAVID BRADBURY: It's been building over time. And these trends have only accelerated under pandemic.

ELDER-CONNORS: It's not just workers who stand to benefit from remote options. Companies also have something to gain now that physical location is less of a requirement. Maureen McElaney, a Burlington resident who works for IBM, says remote work opens up a whole new pool of workers. McElaney says her team has been remote since she joined in 2016. And that's made a huge difference in hiring.

MAUREEN MCELANEY: Someone that you've been friends with on Twitter for a few years - you've never met them in real life, but you know that they have the skills you need - you can reach out, and they can join your team.

ELDER-CONNORS: More remote work options could be a big help for smaller cities like Burlington and for Vermont as a whole. Last year, a state program offered grants to remote workers if they moved to Vermont. That initiative brought in 140 new workers. But this year, the pandemic has made Vermont more attractive to new residents.

JEFF CARR: Now the question is, does that continue?

ELDER-CONNORS: Jeff Carr is president of an economic consulting firm based in Vermont. A recent survey by researchers at the University of Vermont found a third of people who moved to the state during the pandemic say they're likely or very likely to stay. Carr estimates that could boost the state's population by almost 11,000. But he says people might leave once there's a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.

CARR: It's up to us to make it sticky by controlling things like, you know, making sure the cost of living is there, that there's affordable housing options for these folks.

ELDER-CONNORS: Allred from Salt Lake City says she and her husband aren't planning to stay in Vermont forever.

ALLRED: We don't know yet where we'll end up, but we're looking - Colorado, Montana, Wyoming. Some of these areas are just breathtaking.

ELDER-CONNORS: All smaller, rural areas where Allred can continue to enjoy the outdoors and, thanks to remote work, keep her job.

For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Burlington, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CANYON WALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Marcus