Work In Place: Teleworkers in Mississippi
Teleworking, also called telecommuting or working in place, is increasing in popularity throughout the United States. According to Global Workplace Analytics, telecommuting increased 102 percent from 1.8 million in 2005 to about 3.6 million in 2014. Although telework is not new—it began in the late 1970s—it has the potential to transform the traditional workplace, which is characterized by centralized locations (offices and factories) that require the worker to “show up” for work. Teleworking could be a great opportunity in rural areas, where manufacturing and other industrial facilities often are scarce.
Research shows that the recent increase in telecommuting is due primarily to the improvement in information technology, including broadband connectivity and applications. Not only does better connectivity allow telecommuting, but telecommuting also drives broadband adoption. In fact, a study of metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution found that telecommuting was a strong predictor of broadband adoption.
This publication has three goals:
- increase awareness of telecommuting;
- give descriptive and geographic information about telecommuters in Mississippi; and
- jumpstart conversations to address barriers such as inadequate infrastructure, administrative mindsets, and misaligned workforce policies.
Data from the 2010–14 American Community Survey were analyzed at the census tract level (county subdivisions). If a particular census tract had more than 50 percent of its population living in urban areas, the census tract was considered urban; if a tract had more than 50 percent of its population living in rural areas, it was considered rural. A total of 658 Mississippi census tracts were analyzed.
What Is Telecommuting?
The term was first coined in the mid-1970s to refer to employees of large organizations who worked in offices close to their homes—but not in their homes—rather than commuting to a central office.1 More recent studies modified the definition to “working away from the traditional office using computers and telecommunications facilities to maintain a link to the office.”2 Note that these two definitions imply telecommuters are wage and salary employees and not necessarily self-employed and working from home.
Multiple terms are used when describing work outside the traditional office, including telework, telecommute, remote work, and virtual work, among others. Issues with some of these terms led to a new term: work in place.3 Regardless of terminology, the implication is that the nature of work is changing. Work can take place anywhere, from centralized locations to literally any spot—for now, it is mostly at home—where connectivity is available and the worker is comfortable enough to conduct business.
Teleworkers in Mississippi: Class and Location
Figure 1 shows urban and rural census tracts in Mississippi. As expected, the majority of the state census tracts qualify as rural, while urban tracts are mainly located in municipal areas, including large pockets in Desoto County, the Jackson metropolitan area, Hattiesburg, and the Gulf Coast.
Figure 2 shows those working from home by class of work: wage and salary4 and self-employed5. This is important because the needs of teleworkers vary based on the type of work they do. Overall, about 2.3 percent of workers ages 16 and over (26,600 workers) worked from home in Mississippi in 2014, compared to 4.4 percent in the United States.
Wage and salary workers working from home were the majority only in urban areas of the state (about 53.4 percent), while self-employed workers were the majority both in Mississippi overall and in rural areas of the state. About 56.4 percent of workers from home in rural areas were selfemployed versus 42.6 percent wage and salary workers.
In order to identify the census tracts with the highest number of workers from home as a percent of workers 16 and over, census tracts were divided into four equal groups. The lowest quartile had a range of values from 0 percent to 0.6 percent; the second quartile had a range of values from 0.7 percent to 1.7 percent; the third quartile had a range of values from 1.8 percent to 3.1 percent. Figure 3 shows the census tract in the highest quartile, with values ranging from 3.2 percent to 13 percent of workers ages 16 and over working from home.
Note that all of the census tracts in Clarke, Issaquena, and Claiborne Counties were in the highest quartile, while several other counties had more than half of their census tracts in this quartile. Most, if not all, of these tracts were rural, implying that telework activity is higher in rural tracts. In other words, telework does not occur only in urban tracts—rural areas also are benefiting. But what type of telework is being conducted? For that answer, we turn to Figures 4 and 5.
Regarding workers from home doing wage and salary work in the highest quartile (with values ranging from 77.8 percent to 100 percent), Figure 4 shows a different pattern. Half of several counties had census tracts in the highest quartile.
Figure 5 shows the highest quartile regarding self-employed workers from home with values ranging from 72.7 percent to 100 percent. Notice that very few census tracts with the highest quartile of self-employed also have the highest quartile of wage and salary workers. This means that teleworkers by class of work in Mississippi are distributed throughout the state, and no specific clusters are visible (other than counties having the majority of their tracts in the highest quartile). Also notice that the majority of tracts in the highest quartile are in rural parts of the state. This is likely because farm operators are included in the self-employed working from home category.
Teleworkers in Mississippi: Jumpstarting Conversations
As discussed in the previous section, although the percent of workers 16 and over working from home was lower in Mississippi compared to the nation, teleworkers (wage and salary and self-employed) are located throughout the state. In other words, telecommuting exists in Mississippi and will probably continue to increase, mirroring national trends.
As the digital age continues, more jobs will become telework- eligible, and more self-employed workers will be able to grow their businesses through digital platforms. However, several barriers remain that need to be addressed for Mississippi to fully benefit from this changing nature of work. First and foremost, broadband infrastructure is lacking.
As shown in Figure 6, a clear digital divide—defined by differences in broadband speeds—exists between urban and rural tracts in the state. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently defines broadband as at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (“25/3” for short). Mississippi overall does not meet the broadband download criteria; its average advertised fixed broadband download speed as of December 2014 was 18.5 Mbps.
Further, rural tracts have average advertised download speeds three times slower than their urban counterparts; upload speeds are five times slower. Ironically, rural tracts could benefit the most from telework since they struggle more than urban tracts to attract industries, yet they are falling behind on broadband infrastructure. The good news is that this data is about 2 years old and several broadband-upgrade projects have taken place in Mississippi since then.
In addition to improving the broadband infrastructure in the state, statewide policies should focus on providing incentives for employers to allow their employees to telework. For employers to be more receptive, in addition to incentives, a change in mindset is needed. This can be achieved through educational efforts focusing on what gets done, rather than where.
Incentives should be offered to large companies—such as Amazon, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft—to hire Mississippi residents to work from their homes. Mississippi could become the first “telework-friendly” state. After all, Mississippi has an effective system in place that delivers incentives for industrial purposes that can be partially realigned for telework. Further, workforce development programs should focus on training Mississippi residents for telework, including topics such as digital literacy, customer service, teamwork, and project management.
In marketing terminology, a “killer app” is one that is so necessary or desirable that it fundamentally alters the technology landscape. Since the start of the digital age, researchers and advocates have argued that a killer app is needed to drive a more robust technology infrastructure. Telework has the potential to become one of those killer apps.
1Nilles, J.M. (1975). Telecommunications and Organizational Decentralization. IEEE Transactions on Communications, 23(10), 1142–1147.
2Belanger, F. (1999). Workers’ propensity to telecommute: An empirical study. Information & Management, 35, 139–153.
3Erard, M. (2016). Remote? That’s No Way to Describe This Work. The New York Times. Obtained from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/jobs/remote-thats-no-way-to-describe-this-work.html
4Includes private for-profit and nonprofit as well as government employees.
5Includes incorporated and not incorporated self-employed. Not incorporated includes people who work for profit or fees in their own unincorporated business, profession, or trade, or who operate a farm.
Publication 2999 (POD-10-16)
By Dr. Roberto Gallardo, Associate Extension Professor, Extension Center for Technology Outreach.