Gathering about working online from home draws full house in Ephraim

Gathering about working online from home draws full house in Ephraim


By Suzanne Dean





EPHRAIM—Two meetings were held at Snow College recently to implement a state pilot program to help rural residents make good money by working online from home.

The Rural Online Initiative (ROI) meetings on Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 at the Graham Science Building were “sold out,” says Paul Hill, director of USU Extension in Washington County. “There were standing-room crowds.”

Hill, who is in charge of the ROI, briefed the audience about the history of remote work, trends toward creation of remote jobs and an online training program through USU called the “master remote professional certificate.”

The premise of the ROI program is simple, Ken White, vice president of USU Extension explained in the extension newsletter. “Educate, coach, mentor and teach rural businesses and members of the workforce so they can take advantage of online opportunities.

“We see this as a way for citizens to keep the high quality of life found in these rural communities, but now they can have increased earning potential.”

It all started with Darin Bushman, a native of Marysvale in Piute County. He was working in Denver for Hunter-Douglas, the window covering company, when it closed its site there. His company kept him on, but there wasn’t much for him to do.

He and his wife decided, “Let’s go home,” he told a workshop at the Utah Rural Summit last fall.

Home was in Marysvale and Piute County, a county of 1,500 located 25 miles from the nearest freeway.

Because of his business skills and experience, he was able to quite easily get internet-based contract work. He ran projects for large corporations from Marysvale and was authorized to spend a lot of money hiring freelancers throughout the country.

One day, he told the writer for the USU newsletter, “I sat in my office posting a freelance job offer, and it hit me. Why can’t our citizens, with skills to offer, be the ones doing this job rather than someone halfway around the world?”

In 2014, Bushman was elected as a Piute County commissioner and got involved in economic development. He quickly figured out it wasn’t going to be possible to recruit a major employer to Piute County. And tourism tended to generate low-paying service jobs.

People in Piute County had talents; they had skills; but they were often unemployed or underemployed, he told the Rural Summit. Sometimes one spouse had a job, but the other could not find anything locally.

In 2018, he decided to try to get the Utah Legislature interested in the concept of promoting online work and preparing people for online opportunities.

Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, agreed to sponsor a bill in the Utah House of Representatives to create the ROI pilot program with funding of $2.27 million. Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, managed the bill in the Utah Senate.

Ordinarily, a new program and new expenditure doesn’t get anywhere without a lot of deliberation. Frequently, such a measure is studied in an interim committee. But the three-year ROI pilot program got passed and funded within a few weeks. USU Extension was assigned to implement the initiative.

“It’s a really exciting program. I think it has legs,” Bushman told the Rural Summit. “We’ve had national attention. The news articles when this busted loose were remarkable for what I think is a fairly simple idea.”

At the Rural Summit, Hill, the USU Extension director, talked about the new “gig economy.” He said there are 10 million internet-based jobs right now in the United States. By 2027, 50 percent of workers will be working full-time or part-time in the gig economy.

Types of jobs and work-related structures in the gig economy include:

  • Telecommuting: A person works from home for one company.
  • Virtual teams: A person is part of a team charged with getting a project done, but the team members are in different locations.
  • Freelancing: A person works on contract doing different assignments at different times for different companies.
  • Ecommerce entrepreneurship: A person sells products online, such as through E-Bay or an Amazon store.
  • Opportunity hubs: A drop-in site where people come to receive coaching, be lined up for internships, find on-line opportunities and generally develop their professional identities. It can also be a meeting place for people who want to start companies and private investors.

The Rural Online Initiative is being implemented in several ways.

First, rural-work town meetings are being held to get the word out.

Second, the ROI legislation authorizes the state to offer incentives to employers who contract with Utah freelancers.

Third, six USU Extension staff members have been assigned to help implement the program in different parts of the state. Representatives are located in Washington, Garfield, Sevier, Emery and Carbon counties.

Fourth, and possibly the most concrete, is the master remote professional certificate. It’s an online program with nine modules covering topics such as the typical work day, communication in an online environment, scheduling and workflow, productivity and time management, compliance (including security and privacy) and remote job development.

After every three modules, students attend an on-line workshop using “Zoom,” a software similar to Skype.

“It’s like the Brady Bunch,” Hill says. “We’ve had up to 50 students. They join us live from all over rural Utah.”

According to Hill, to date, 150 people have registered for the course, and 20 have completed it. Once a student completes, he or she is offered one-on-one help to find online work.

There is one more remote-work town meeting this year. It is Monday, Dec. 10 at the Piute County Building in Marysvale at 7 p.m.

Hill said a new schedule of remote-work meetings, including additional sessions in Sanpete County, will be set up after the first of the year.