Teleworking: A New Rural Opportunity

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

The year 2003 was one of the worst years for Canadian agriculture, with net farm income falling by hundreds of millions of dollars right across the country. On the Prairies, the BSE crisis was layered on top of already low grain prices and, to top it all off, Manitoba was hard hit by cutbacks in the PMU industry. A surging Canadian dollar has erased any competitive advantage we may have had in pork production. I guess the only consolation is that things can’t get much worse. Can they?

These concerns bring us back to perennial questions about rural development and what we can do to insulate the rural economy against such catastrophes. The reliance on commodity production for export makes rural communities uniquely vulnerable to global price swings and trade policy. And it certainly doesn’t help to have such poor relations with our largest trading partner.

What can rural communities do to capitalize on our natural advantages and promote economic development? Natural advantages are unique to specific areas and cannot be duplicated. They are eternal, in contrast to the various generic development schemes that have been subsidized from time to time. These can be wiped out by competition from cities, where urban economies of scale can provide severe competition for rural rivals.

Sometimes it actually makes more economic sense to ship out raw product than to add value locally. That’s one reason why we don’t have any pasta plants on the Prairies. The infamous Crow’s Nest rail subsidies made them impossible, but none have sprung up since it was cancelled almost ten years ago. A cynic might say that’s a good thing, what with the anti-carbohydrate craze that has struck North America.

One defining, unique feature of much of rural Manitoba is our very high level of environmental quality. Throw in low real estate prices (at least by global standards), a reasonable level of services and emerging communications technologies, and we have the ingredients to attract sophisticated “knowledge workers” who are looking to create new lifestyles. These self-made and self-employed entrepreneurs have been referred to as “Lone Eagles” based on their penchant for operating sole-proprietor businesses located in rural areas away from the urban hustle and bustle.

Futurists recently coined a word for a new worker in the information industry, the teleworker. These are people who provide information, analysis, software, designs, reports, studies and even newspaper columns. They can live wherever they want, and an increasing number of them are choosing to live in rural areas for “quality of life” reasons.

A recent Globe and Mail article described a Montreal-based software company, SiteSell Inc., with 36 employees around the word. While these employees are friends in the best sense of the world, most of them have never met in person. Yet they continue to function as a team, delivering products and services to obviously satisfied clients. The owner, Ken Evoy, notes that his only focus is output and that such a decentralized organization avoids all of the “office politics” that can cripple an organization.

There is no reason at all that some of these employees and others like them could not be located in rural Manitoba. Studies have shown that teleworkers are entrepreneurial self-starters who share an abiding passion for environmental quality and security. Our communities should develop marketing strategies to “sell” teleworkers on rural Manitoba’s natural environmental advantages and encourage them to “set up shop” in our beautiful rural regions.

This is one economic advantage that no one can take away from us.