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Remote reality: Agreeable bosses, speedy internet remaking work in Sandhills

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Posted at 4:50 PM, Sep 24, 2023

VALENTINE, Neb. (Flatwater Free Press) — In his spare-room-turned-office, Hunter Miller boots up his three computer screens. His coffee’s freshly poured, and he’s ready to log in to start his workday with the engineering firm Olsson.

Olsson’s corporate headquarters are in the heart of Lincoln.

But Miller logs in from his home 300 miles away in Valentine. He lives there with his fiancee, who grew up in this Sandhills city of 2,621 people.

Miller, an assistant roadway design engineer from Stromsburg, never thought he’d be able to live in a place the size of his hometown while working the job he wanted.

Then COVID-19 happened. Everything went online. Suddenly, what seemed impossible became possible.

“We knew that we wanted to raise our kids here some day,” Miller said. “We probably wouldn’t have left Lincoln if I didn’t have the opportunity to work remotely. But now, I’m not leaving.”

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Roadway engineer Hunter Miller works on a project for the engineering firm Olsson. Miller and his fiancee always knew they wanted to live in a small town. Until the pandemic, he wasn't sure if he’d be able to find a job in his field in a small town. Photo by Phil & Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

The number of Nebraskans working remotely has more than doubled since the days before the pandemic, skyrocketing from 46,436 in 2019 to 110,093 last year, according to a U.S Census Bureau annual survey. Despite that jump, Nebraska still lags behind most of the rest of the country when it comes to remote work.

But in towns like Valentine, local leaders are hoping that an increasingly work-from-home-friendly world, paired with recent moves to expand broadband and internet access, will lure more remote workers like Miller – professionals with jobs typically reserved for Nebraska’s metro areas who would, if possible, rather live in a small town.

And it’s already happening, says Valentine Mayor Kyle Arganbright. Before the pandemic, the Valentine native could name only a few remote workers living in town. Last fall he started to count, first listing off the remote workers he personally knows, then taking to social media to solicit other names.

He counted 15. Then 25. Then at least 30.

That’s noticeable growth for a town like Valentine, Arganbright thinks – particularly because bringing more people into town means more people who can become civically engaged. More people to patronize local businesses, and enroll their kids in school.

This hasn’t happened by accident. Valentine greatly improved its broadband offerings in the past two years, partnering with the Nebraska-based internet company Allo to get the entire city fiber internet access.

“It was becoming, to me, a barrier for entry for businesses and people in many rural communities. And we didn’t want that barrier in Valentine,” Arganbright said. “It helps create a place that people can grow professionally without having to uproot and move to a different location.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic was a “bit of a wake-up call” for the need for internet in rural communities – and the funding needed to make it happen, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, extension specialist with Rural Prosperity Nebraska.

The 2021 federal infrastructure law set aside $405 million to get Nebraskans online, money to be overseen by the state’s newly formed Broadband Office. Since 2021, the Legislature has also put millions of dollars every year toward bringing broadband to underserved communities throughout the state.

Just like public funding helped bring telephone lines into rural America in the 20th century, it’s necessary to usher in internet in the 21st, said Burkhart-Kriesel. And like sewage, electricity and water, fast, reliable internet has become a necessity – something Nebraskans expect, she said.

Long-shrinking rural communities, if they make the right moves, can use broadband as one way to keep people in town – and attract new residents, too, according to Burkhart-Kriesel and other rural experts.

“The community and economic development question has really changed,” said Jeff Yost, president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation. “It used to be a question of jobs, and now, it’s really a question of place. Why do I want to live and work and raise my family in this community? Because with remote work, we have all these choices.” 

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In Valentine, city leaders started grappling with broadband years before the pandemic sent large swaths of the country online.

“We knew it was bad,” Arganbright said. “You couldn’t expeditiously download large files or movies. You couldn’t stream successfully. Video calls were a no-go, you’d freeze the whole time.”

Businesses, like the bank where Arganbright works, would pay thousands to a separate internet provider to build fiber directly to the office – it’s the only way they could function, he said.

Then, the pandemic hit. Churches streamed services. Parents attended Zoom meetings while their kids attended Zoom school.

“The conversation went from an opportunity to a problem,” Arganbright said.

Valentine soon started talks with Allo, an Imperial-founded company known for laying fiber in rural Nebraska towns.

They tried to get state funds to blanket Valentine with high-speed internet, but the state denied the grant request. CenturyLink claimed it was already providing high-speed internet to homes in town, Arganbright said. This disqualified the city’s project since state grants were set aside for underserved areas.

“Realistically, there were like two to five houses in town that were getting that, because it was close enough to (CenturyLink’s) equipment,” Arganbright said.

So Valentine decided to do it on its own.

An internet and cable provider – Three River Digital – was already planning on ending service in Valentine. The city bought the company’s existing infrastructure – an operations building and wire strung along power lines – then leased it to Allo. Valentine’s city council unanimously approved paying Allo $400,000 to build fiber within city limits – funds from the city’s electrical revenue, not state grants or federal COVID relief dollars, Arganbright said.

In return, Valentine gets a 5% cut from every customer Allo connects to fiber cable, for as long as Allo remains in town. Valentine is already seeing a 10% annual return, Arganbright said, and he expects the city to make back its original $400,000 investment in 12 years or less.

Another stroke of luck: Allo had pre-bought new fiber just as the pandemic was starting, Arganbright said – just before fiber-optic cable’s availability plummeted and the price rose.

“We started the conversation early enough that we were ready to go,” Arganbright said.

By spring 2021, homes and businesses in Valentine city limits were connected to Allo’s fiber network. If city limits expand, Allo must expand broadband with it.

Internet access allows more people to work remotely, Arganbright said, but just as crucial is employers like Olsson’s newfound willingness to accommodate remote workers like Miller.

When the engineer found out his fiancee had gotten a job with Valentine Community Schools, he asked his bosses: Can I do my job remotely? They didn’t hesitate. He occasionally drives the five hours to Lincoln for an in-person meeting.

Miller grew up in a town smaller than Valentine. He hated the Lincoln traffic and missed knowing everyone in his community.

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Hunter Miller works at his three-screen desk for an engineering firm 300 miles away. A former Husker football player, Miller’s office shelves are filled with football memorabilia and his diploma. Photo by Phil & Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

For eight years, Angelina Wright has worked for Grand Island-based Ducks Unlimited, five of those years from her home in Valentine. She wanted to raise her kids here where she grew up.

Eric Hofferber started looking for a remote job while living in Lincoln. His wife was finishing medical residency, and they knew she’d likely be placed in a rural community in need of doctors. The pair moved to Valentine after she accepted a job at the Cherry County Hospital.

Hofferber secured a job as a medical writer before the move. His Starlink internet lets him video call with pharmaceutical co-workers living in the Philippines. He’s already noticed Allo installing fiber near his home just outside city limits.

“A lot of times, a spouse will get a job, and the trailing spouse will be like, ‘What am I going to do there?’” Yost said. “This totally changes the ability for one spouse to be able to pursue their dream job without the other spouse having to sacrifice.”

The ability to work remote jobs – and the internet to make it possible – expands rural Nebraskans’ professional opportunities and salary possibilities, Arganbright said. And, it brings people into town who are actively choosing to live there.

“They’re more apt to get involved in different things around the community,” Arganbright said. “The bottom line is, if somebody’s in a place where they’re happy, the town’s going to be better.”

Remote work is growing in Nebraska, but it hasn’t gained traction as in other states, said Josie Gatti Schafer, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 2021, 12.3% of working Nebraskans worked from home, ranking 37th in the country. These numbers, she said, cast doubt on the hope that the pandemic and remote work options would bring people from more crowded and expensive states into Nebraska.

“There was this idea that folks would boomerang back to Nebraska to enjoy the good life, but keep their high-paying jobs,” Schafer said. “But it does not seem to be panning out in the data.”

Part of this is because of Nebraska’s workforce, she said. Most workers in Nebraska work in industries that don’t transfer remotely, like health care, maintenance, agriculture and retail.

Workplace culture could be a factor as well. From 2021 to 2022, the number of remote workers in Nebraska declined, as companies started calling people back into the office. Jobs that could be done remotely in Nebraska haven’t made the shift as often or as quickly as other states, Schafer said.

But things could change with the next generation, Schafer and Yost said. The Nebraska Community Foundation’s annual youth survey has found for five years that Nebraska’s teens prefer small towns, but often worry that there are a lack of career opportunities in those communities.

As attitudes toward remote work – and access to internet – change, so too could the number of Nebraskans working from home.

Growing the number of Nebraskans working remotely in small towns will take more than internet access and willing employers, experts said. Nebraskans tend to leave the state for job opportunities, Schafer said. Once there, they get used to a different quality of life that larger metro areas offer.

Being a newcomer in a small town – and adjusting to small-town politics and culture – can be an obstacle as well.

“It’s one of the great challenges of the 21st century,” Yost said. “How do we identify our commonalities and create communities where people feel welcome and a sense of belonging?”

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Hunter Miller pours his morning coffee before logging into his job as an assistant roadway engineer for the Lincoln-based firm Olsson. Miller works 300 miles away from his home in Valentine. Photo by Phil & Whitney Mayhew for the Flatwater Free Press

In the year that he’s lived in Valentine, Miller has joined a golf group. He helps coach youth wrestling. He doesn’t see himself leaving Valentine anytime soon.

“Before, it seemed like if you were going to go back to a small town, you either had to commute somewhere for work, your parents had to own land so you could farm it, or your family had to own a business in town,” Miller said.

“The career path that I wanted wasn’t available in a small town,” he said, “until COVID.”

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