Is your future in IT a job in the boonies?

More and more tech jobs are moving to rural America; is it more than 'Green Acres' meets 'Big Bang Theory'?

Struggling to find a job in IT in and around your home city or suburb? Consider a move to Jonesboro, Ark., Sebeka, Minn., or Macon, Mo. These locales might not jump out as being hotbeds of technology development or home to a large number of businesses or government agencies. But they are places where a growing number of technology workers are settling in order to find jobs in their field.

The source of these jobs is rural outsourcing companies, "onshore" IT service providers that market their offerings to clients as an alternative to offshoring or keeping IT functions in-house. Because some or all of their facilities are located in lower-cost areas in the United States, these companies can keep fees relatively low for their clients.

[ U.S. tech workers have another option: Move abroad for IT jobs. | Get ongoing advice from IT career expert Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

Before you plan your move to the country, though, consider that working in a rural area could mean significant lifestyle changes, particularly if you're accustomed to the city lights. And though the cost of, for example, real estate and health insurance premiums will likely be lower, not everything is less expensive. The lower salary that comes with a rural IT job could mean having to make sacrifices.

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Still, if you like the rural life; are looking to start, advance, or wind down your career in IT; and don't mind relocating, joining an onshore outsourcing IT firm might present a good opportunity. And these options appear to be growing: "We are seeing an increase in open IT positions in rural markets," says Rachel Russell, marketing director at TekSystems, a technology staffing firm. Indeed, onshore outsourcing companies such as Onshore Technology Services, Rural Sourcing, Rural America OnShore Sourcing, and CrossUSA tell InfoWorld.com that they're hiring people in several IT disciplines.

Adjusting to the rural life
Moving to a rural area of the country is clearly not for everyone. While securing a solid job in IT is a good reason to relocate in general, for someone who has grown up in a city, the culture shock of rural life might outweigh the benefits of landing a technology job.

Individuals and families will be forced to make cultural adjustments going from city or suburb to rural. "This is a huge deal," says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners, a research firm that follows IT hiring trends. "Rural can be politically, intellectually, and culturally very different. I realize that is a matter of personal choice, but it can be a difficult situation when a spouse or partner does not like the rural environment or if the IT professionals finds it lacking."

Some who took the leap have had to adjust. Software engineer Dora Eitel worked as a branch manager at a financial company before joining Onshore Technology Services in Macon, Mo., about three years ago. She now leads a team of data analysts who aggregate information and fill ad hoc requests for a financial services client.

Eitel was attracted to the potential career path Onshore could offer in IT, and she likes the fact that the firm hires U.S.-based people, even if they have no background in IT. But becoming part of Onshore meant making a big change. In Eitel's case, it was a positive one: "I could probably move to a larger city to earn a higher wage, but I moved to a rural community for the lifestyle it offers versus the lifestyle and chaos of city living."

It's not always easy to get people to move to a rural area after having worked for years at a large enterprise in the big city, however. "Imagine a guy in Dallas gets laid off after 25 years, and we're asking him to move to a place where it's below zero for several weeks out of the year, at much lower pay," says John Beesley, director of business development at CrossUSA, a rural outsourcing firm with operations in Sebeka and Eveleth, Minn. Nevertheless, the company prides itself on maintaining a stable workforce from those who make the move.

From the employees that InfoWorld.com interviewed, it seemed that those who had grown up in rural areas were most comfortable with working in rural locations.

Jerry Jensen, who works as a team leader, was out of work for about a year when he joined CrossUSA. Before that he was director of IS for a distribution company in Minneapolis, and altogether has been in the IT field for about 30 years. Jensen was actively interested in working in a rural area, where traffic wasn't a hassle and the pace of life was slower than what he experienced working in a city. "I like this environment, since I had grown up in a rural area of South Dakota and like the outdoor activities this area provides," Jensen says.

Another CrossUSA employee, Doug Michelz, an operations manager who works in the firm's Eveleth location, joined the company about a year ago after spending most of his 25-year career as an IT professional in the financial sector. That includes a 10-year stint at Northwestern Mutual Life, where he helped build the firm's information risk management practice.

Michelz was drawn to CrossUSA because of the location and lifestyle it afforded. While he's a Milwaukee, Wis., native and had worked in the downtown area for more than 30 years, for the most part he resided in a rural setting similar to where he is now in Minnesota.

Other factors made the move easier for Michelz. He's not married, and his children are either in college or soon to be. "With one daughter off to college and on her own, and the other on her way to college most likely in northern Wisconsin, we would be geographically dispersed anyway," he says. "When it comes to family vacations or the holidays, we are all traveling some distance in order to get together."

For some people the current economic climate -- with its still-high unemployment rate -- will spur a move to rural settings to land a job, says Karen Cooper, president of Smart IT Staffing, an IT recruitment firm. "We're finding in our day-to-day recruiting people are much more open to moving," she says. "If they've been unemployed for a while -- say, longer than few months -- they become very open to the possibility of moving."

Coping with the cost issues
Rural outsourcing companies are able to keep their costs down largely because they can pay lower wages to employees. For example, new hires at CrossUSA typically make 30 to 40 percent less than what they earned in their previous IT job. That means you can expect to draw a significantly lower salary than you might get working in New York or Boston.

But the lower salaries aren't necessarily matched by lower expenses. "As far as income versus expense goes, there doesn't seem to be a large difference between rural and metropolitan area expense," Jensen says. "In fact, in some areas like groceries [and] clothes, your actual expense increases in the rural areas," he says.

Research firm CEO Foote agrees that rural costs are not necessarily lower. He and his family moved three years ago from a suburban locale to a comparatively rural area in Florida. "My overall taxes here are much higher than back in Connecticut, which was a shock," he says. "I am forced to carry three separate insurance policies on my home, not the usual one homeowners policy. Local property taxes are more than double what they were in suburbia."

In addition, the move "meant a job change for my wife but no change in mine, and that has to be factored [in], since many families are two-income these days," Foote says.

Foote brings up another point regarding costs: "Relocation is a big problem right now for anybody who faces the difficulty of selling their existing home and moving to a new area in the current market. Many people are under water in their mortgages or will have much difficulty finding a buyer for their existing home. Even if they don't have that problem, they can't even get a mortgage if they find a new house in a rural area, which means they are now renting. This is no small matter in the current labor market."

How do people deal with having a lower salary and yet facing the same or, in some cases, higher costs, as well as these other economic challenges?

"You adjust accordingly to expenses versus income," Jensen says. For example, if he's buying clothes Jensen will drive an hour or so away to a larger town and shop at a store that carries lower-cost clothing. "You do pay more attention to upcoming sales and [use] coupons a lot more to reduce your grocery bill," Jensen says. "In the end, you make the necessary adjustments to offset the difference."

For some experienced IT workers, moving to a rural area and accepting a lower salary is easier because they've had a chance to accrue savings through investments or a receiving a pension.

"I have done alright for myself and have enough set aside to do OK in retirement," Michelz says. "Yet, I would re-emphasize that, at least in my case, it is the lifestyle and the opportunity that brought me here and will most likely keep me here."

Professional benefits of rural IT
Despite the potential challenges, IT labor experts say rural outsourcing can open up new opportunities for people in IT, particularly those with limited or no experience, such as new graduates who are having a hard time getting their first job.

"The largest benefits for talent working with a rural outsourcing firm are the opportunities to experience broad technologies, industries, and business sectors that wouldn't otherwise be available locally," says Andy Speer, vice president of technology services at Technisource, an IT staffing firm.

For some, working at a rural outsourcing firm provides the chance to move into an IT career they hadn't even considered previously. For example, Alex Ross, a senior technologist with Onshore Technology Services, was working as a fry cook at a KFC restaurant before joining the outsourcing firm five years ago. Today Ross is responsible for developing coding standards and best practices, leading group training courses, developing pilot projects for new clients, and mentoring other technology employees.

"Onshore is the reason I was able to become an IT professional," Ross says. "Without this sort of opportunity I would not have even attempted it." Ross was already living in Macon before working for Onshore, so he didn't have to adjust his lifestyle.

Rural outsourcing is giving some older IT workers like Jensen and Michelz a chance to extend their careers. CrossUSA generally recruits older, experienced workers approaching retirement. The average age of IT employees at the firm is late 40s to early 50s.

Cooper says rural outsourcing opens up opportunities for older IT workers to move into new areas of technology. "We talk to quite a few mainframers who say they're looking to work with some of the newer technologies," she says. "For them money's not the most important thing; it's learning about new technology."

Rural outsourcing can also benefit IT professionals at the other end of the age spectrum. Rural Sourcing, a Jonesboro, Ark., service provider, hires mostly recent college graduates.

One Rural Sourcing employee, Granville Raper, who joined the firm in July as a senior programmer/analyst, says working for the outsourcing company has allowed him to venture into something new that he didn't see coming his way for some time.

"I feel very lucky that new hiring opportunities have started to become available despite where the economy is going," Raper says. "I see a lot of opportunities that I can go after since I'm now part of a bigger company that also works with larger companies."

Another Rural Sourcing employee, Ben Tracy, joined the company after graduating from Arkansas Statue University and working a few entry-level programming jobs. Tracy, who works as a senior programmer/analyst, says IT opportunities in the area are slim, so the job at Rural Sourcing allowed him to launch an IT career while staying close to home. "My family would have moved years ago if [Rural Sourcing] had not been successful," he says.

This article, "Is your future in IT a job in the boonies?" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in tech careers at InfoWorld.com.

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