latest challenge facing the U.S. economy seems to be the export
of many service and technology jobs to offshore locations.
like India, China, and Ireland have become attractive locations
for U.S. companies to relocate jobs in computer programming, call
centers, software and hardware help desks, and similar jobs in technology.
Washington State University is exploring an idea that could help
keep some of this business in the United States, while at the same
time helping address the problem of depressed economies in many
of our rural communities.
idea is called "Rural Telework." Teleworkers used to be a relatively
minor part of the workforce, but in 2003, the number of teleworkers
nationwide increased to 23.5 million from 4 million in 1990.
the majority of teleworkers are still in cities, this trend
also starting to affect workers in rural areas. There are a variety
of models of rural telework—from individuals working out
of home-based offices to telework centers where multiple employers
share a facility. Telework centers can also serve as a community
technology resource site, providing access and training on
and the Internet. Another example of rural telework is the expansion
of current operations into rural communities, as is the case
call centers or customer service branch offices.
at WSU Extension
In 1999, WSU Extension began to explore the potential of telework
as an economic development strategy for rural communities as
as a workforce strategy to help urban employers meet some of their
business challenges. This effort was led by Dee Christensen
Monica Babine. Since 2000, WSU has conducted a comprehensive research
and demonstration project on technology-based economic development
for rural communities. This innovative project provided outreach
and technical assistance to communities and employers, served
a clearinghouse for rural telework information, researched impacts
on communities and employers, and developed a community resource
kit on rural telework. The project was successful in assisting
two employers to establish over 50 living wage jobs in rural
and received the Governor's Best Practices Award in Workforce Development.
One of the employers involved in the Rural Telework Project is
Seattle-based Washington Dental Service. Washington Dental Service
(WDS) is Washington State’s largest dental benefits company
with 280 employees who serve more than 1.9 million people.
the late 1990s, WDS recognized a need to expand its operations
to accommodate business growth, as explained by Director of Operations
Heather Kirton: “We began to run out of space at our Seattle
facility, and at the same time, it was increasingly difficult
to attract quality applicants for customer service and claims
considered alternatives from outsourcing to creation of a second
site. “Initially, we looked at sites along the Interstate
5 corridor, but costs and staffing issues led us to explore other
options,” said Craig Gowdey, vice-president and chief information
officer. Previous work with the WSU telework group led the company
to consider the WSU Rural Telework Project.
was one of the communities participating in the project and WDS
decided to explore it as a potential second site. Gowdey, the
executive responsible for site selection, was comfortable considering
Colville because he was born and raised in Spokane and camped
and fished in the area as a youth.
Decision to Pursue Rural Telework
as a broker, WSU telework staff worked with a WDS site selection
team and a small group of community leaders in Colville,
including Al Kowitz, Stevens County Extension Chair. WDS conducted
several site visits and was impressed by Colville’s can-do
attitude and responsiveness.
to Gowdey, “It wasn’t the look of the town, it was
how much they were organized to answer my questions and how they
thought out what they needed to do. That is what sold it in my
September 2001, WDS senior management selected Colville for its:
Lower cost of living and real estate
• Access to a quality workforce
• Necessary technology infrastructure
• Supportive economic climate and community (including access
to a facility)
does it mean to WDS and Colville?
Olson, WDS CS Rep.
Colville office is expected to save Washington Dental Service approximately
a million dollars over the next three years. In comparison with
the Seattle area, real estate costs are one-third lower and labor
costs are 15 to 20 percent less. In addition to cost savings, locating
an office in Colville is consistent with the company's business
objectives in Washington. Jim Dwyer, CEO, observes, "It keeps Washington
Dental Service business in Washington State and provides economic
development opportunities to a rural area of the state."
effect on Colville and its economy is also significant. According
to Dave Holland of WSU's Department of Agricultural and Natural
Resource Economics, the 27 jobs created by the center actually create
another 12 jobs in the rest of the Stevens County economy due to
the "ripple effect."
investment WDS makes in Colville goes far beyond the infusion of
new wages. WDS has also become a strong community member. Each year
the company brings its "SmileMobile" to town to provide dental treatment
to low income children. For three years, the Colville office has
participated in the Relay for Life and this past year they were
the number one local sponsor in Stevens County. Employees and the
corporation contribute to United Way, with all funds going to local
CSG Openline was the second company that located in Colville during
the Rural Telework Project. CSG Openline provides communication,
data, and relationship management services for technology companies
that use channel partners to sell their products. It has a call
center and its core competence is providing voice communications
where direct communication is required. CSG
Openline is headquartered in Seattle.
Openline has been growing and wanted to look at expansion options
in Seattle and other western Washington locations. The idea of exploring
options in an economically disadvantaged area appealed to the company.
CSG believed it was important to take into consideration the potential
for positive community impacts as well as good business practices.
Since the founder and chief strategy officer are both from eastern
Washington, there was a background with that part of the state.
Openline had two working assumptions in pursuing the rural option
to meet its business need for expansion. The first was that its
operating costs would be less. The second was that it would be able
to deliver a higher quality of service due to lower employee attrition
and a higher entry-level skill set. It believed it might attract
higher skilled individuals in a rural community than to Seattle.
Working with a consultant from the Tri-county Economic Develop District,
CGS embarked on a process to learn more about what some rural eastern
Washington communities had to offer as well as the steps they were
taking to be more competitive. It quickly narrowed the list and
visited a few communities. The visits included meeting community
members and touring potential facilities.
CSG Openline learned about the possibility of developing a partnership
with a business in Colville, this was the option it pursued. The
company in Colville, Emerald Creek, operated a call center and did
telemarketing and telesales for its own products and services.
Once the master agreement was in place, CSG Openline developed a
six- to seven-week implementation plan. This included getting the
facility ready, identifying the projects staff would be working
on, and developing the necessary processes and reporting requirements.
Emerald Creek hired nine new employees. There was remote training
of staff in Colville as well as a week of on-site training and team
building. The manager in Colville also spent time training in Seattle.
team walking the track for the "Relay for
After the Colville site went into operation there was regular communication
with headquarters following a detailed communication plan. Quality
assurance monitoring was also put in place. In the early weeks of
operation there were regular visits to Colville by CSG Openline
staff, and periodic visits will continue. Throughout this process
there has been an emphasis on making sure the Colville employees
feel they are part of the CSG Openline team.
Initially, nine part-time employees were hired to work on CSG Openline
projects. The operation has been very successful with the workforce
growing to 18 part-time employees.
Recently, the WSU rural telework effort has taken on a new label,
that of "e-Work" and has been moved under the administrative structure
of the WSU Center to Bridge the Digital Divide (CBDD). Dee Christensen
is now the e-Work director and Monica Babine is the e-Work coordinator
for the CBDD. There will be numerous opportunities for those associated
with WSU to help with future efforts to increase information-based
jobs in rural Washington. "If you know of urban business leaders
who have ties to rural Washington, like the executives from Washington
Dental Service and CSG Openline did, we'd welcome a chance to talk
with them," says Christensen. "We believe our e-Work efforts offer
win-win opportunity for urban companies and rural communities."
Chair, Information Department
Dee Christensen and Monica Babine
Center to Bridge the Digital Divide