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The 2016 election laid bare multiple divisions in American society, but one of the biggest is geographical. In major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, people are generally doing well (although not equally so), while many places situated far from urban business centers aren’t.
Remarkably, faith in the American dream runs highest in locales where social mobility is lowest. U.S. companies, which for the past eight months have been struggling to navigate choppy political waters, should see that as an opportunity — even a call to action.
Add geography to your diversity goals
Many business leaders I’ve spoken to have been thinking harder lately about how to reverse political, cultural, and socioeconomic polarization. Some say more urban professionals from the coasts should move out to the middle of the country. Others might wish for corporations to relocate to suburbs and rural areas in need of opportunity, rather than continue the opposite trend.
But if businesses really want to create jobs in struggling parts of America — the places unfairly dismissed by some on the coasts as “flyover country” — and bridge political divisions in the process, the solution is simpler: Hire more people outside of big coastal cities. Just don’t ask them to move.
The most innovative companies have already committed to building more diverse workforces, knowing that that’s both an ethical and competitive imperative. Some have set clear hiring targets for demographic representation, occasionally even publishing them in order to keep themselves accountable. Why not take the same approach to geography?
As virtually every politician across the political spectrum will eagerly remind you, residents of places like Youngstown, Ohio or McDowell County, Virginia are pissed off — and they have every right to be, because their local economies have been shattered in recent decades while jobs funneled out to big cities or overseas. In one analysis a couple of years ago, 20 metropolitan areas were generating more than half the country’s GDP output, and there’s little to indicate much has changed since.
In fact, the low national unemployment rate of 4.9 percent masks a deeper problem: Many people who would otherwise be available for work have completely opted out of the labor market. The official unemployment rate is higher in some places and lower in others, but in all cases it excludes those who haven’t actively sought work in the past four weeks. What’s more, people are dropping out of the labor force or retiring despite a spike in health care jobs, many of which can be done from anywhere by just about anyone.
One explanation, as PBS contributor Paul Solman points out, is that those roles are typically “quite demanding, both emotionally and physically” and often constitute “low-end, low-pay” work. The same is true for many who do manage to stay put in the employed column by picking up part-time, low-pay jobs with few or no significant benefits.
It’s not that good work doesn’t exist: Just ask any hiring manager how hard it is to fill an open role. There are lots of jobs to be had, just not where many people actually live, particularly outside a handful of major metro areas. For years, even the best-intentioned tech companies have cited a bogus “pipeline problem,” claiming that there just aren’t enough qualified female engineers or African-American developers out there for them to hire. That’s never been the case — it’s just that businesses haven’t always known where to look, or looked hard enough.
Much the same goes for geography. If they’re willing to actually look, companies can locate top talent well outside the same crowded cities where they keep desperately hunting within limited, competitive local pools. Some top knowledge workers actually want to leave major hubs for smaller towns and rural areas where their dollars will go further — they just haven’t found employers that will let them. Maybe that means a Seattle company recruiting new, remote hires in small cities undergoing surprising tech booms, like tiny Bozeman, Montana. Or maybe it just means letting a top performer leave headquarters to keep doing her job remotely from someplace else.
When companies make even small shifts toward more distributed workforces, the outsize impact can be surprising. Thanks to the well-known “multiplier effect,” for every job you fill in (let’s say) Detroit, you can actually create up to 4.3 jobs altogether: The person you hire will spend the money she earns locally, creating work for lawyers, schoolteachers, dentists, retail staff, and restaurant workers. It’s the reverse for every designer and developer you ask to move from someplace else to work with you in your New York office; you’ve just taken her talent and spending out of another city that’s now that much less likely to flourish in the future.
Yes, it requires going remote
None of this can be accomplished without embracing remote work. While major employers, like IBM most recently, have ended long-standing remote-work policies, employees already see flexible arrangements as the inevitable future of their working lives. What’s more, offering more remote positions can help companies meet their diversity goals; women are especially likely to cite flexibility as a top employment priority.
Requiring people to come to a set location at fixed hours is a remnant of the Industrial Age, and it’s time to let it go. The COO of one growing company explained in Fast Company last month how he’s helped assemble a workforce from 19 employees back in 2006 to over 400 today — all of whom are remote. It can be done. After all, outside of big cities, the talent you seek isn’t concentrated enough to fill an office tower. There’s no single magic town filled with talented web developers you can hire in one lightning recruiting session.
Instead, companies need to leverage all the technological advances of recent years to erase what researcher Steve King has called the “paradox of place,” whereby “even though the internet and connective technologies have made working remotely easier than ever, people and companies are increasingly clustering together in fewer locations, mostly in cities.” At my company, Upwork, our own team is distributed. Over the past year, we’ve had 250 remote team members in the U.S. spread across 209 cities in 38 states, and by 2020, we plan to increase that number by at least 40 percent.
I call on business leaders to join me in setting targets of their own. Commit to hiring your next team member in a smaller city, small town, or rural area. Then commit to doing this as often as possible for the next few years until it becomes second nature.
You’ll find there’s a lot of talent out there, including in places you haven’t thought to look. There are many people who’d welcome the higher rates a tech company could pay. Don’t be cheap, either: Offer San Francisco or New York rates, which won’t just feel generous to someone living in a less expensive part of the country but can actually help jump-start those areas’ economies. You’ll be rewarded with great loyalty. You’ll gain access to new talent, new insights, and the increased creativity that greater diversity brings.
What’s more, you’ll be helping to distribute opportunity and — maybe — a small, badly needed measure of understanding.
This post originally appeared on Fast Company.
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