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Remote Work Can Thrive in Remote Places

People in struggling communities can benefit from the work-from-home phenomenon. But they need some mentoring to do it. Some innovative startups are getting them there.

A riverfront park in Huntington, W.V. The town is home to a “remote work broker,” a firm that profits from connecting local talent with remote job opportunities.
In last month’s column, I talked about how the city of Tulsa, the state of West Virginia, and other states and localities are using incentive programs to lure new residents who can work remotely. Remote work has many places salivating over the prospect of attracting new residents who can do their jobs at home full time or part time.

But what about the other side of the coin, namely the existing residents of a particular place, especially a distressed place? Does the move to remote work offer any benefit to them? Yes, it does.

Even for people who never move from where they currently live, remote work offers the chance to access job opportunities previously foreclosed to them for simple geographic reasons. This offers particular hope to places that have been left behind economically, as I discovered when doing research in Appalachia.

What I found there were “remote work brokers,” firms that profit from connecting local talent with remote job opportunities. One of them is a firm in Huntington, W.V., called CentralApp. Its CEO, Todd Cope, is a child of coal miners who went to college at Carnegie Mellon University and moved to Silicon Valley for a career in tech. He knew both Appalachia and the technology world, and made CentralApp into a bridge between the two. The company identifies and funds the training of Appalachian residents in Salesforce administration or development, then deploys them to its corporate client that use Salesforce software. These clients have the option to hire the contract remote workers as full-time employees for a placement fee. CentralApp already has more than 100 people working in its program, and hopes to grow that to over a thousand.

This model, called Hire-Train-Deploy, is especially helpful in connecting people who don’t have the exact skills that are in demand in the market, and may not even know what those skills are, to high-value economic opportunity. As Cope puts it, “There’s lots of talent in the country, but opportunity is not evenly distributed.” There’s real value in identifying those underused people, providing them with market-relevant skills, and then helping to place them into remote work jobs.

Another company in West Virginia, the Charleston branch of Uruguay-based Oktana, has a similar model, although it operates in more traditional software consulting rather than a contracting system. This firm also specializes in Salesforce technology. When researching locations, Oktana’s Julia Barrett alighted on Charleston because research showed it would be the best for employee loyalty. And, as she said, “I don’t know another state where everyone is working so hard to help themselves.”

Both of these firms have seen employees achieve life-changing experiences. One CentralApp employee in Hazard, Ky., was hired on to his client full time at a six-figure salary. One Oktana employee is a former coal miner who had previously experienced a stint of homelessness.

Not everybody will have this level of success, but remote work can provide an entire universe of new possibilities for people who live in economically underdeveloped parts of the country.

Remote work broker firms like CentralApp and Oktana will be critical to realizing this opportunity. Some experienced but displaced workers have the skills and savvy to network their way into a desirable remote work job. Many others, especially in rural locations, generally lack the ability to do that. They may have the raw talent. But they don’t have the skills that are in demand in the market. They may not even know they can acquire those skills. They don’t have the money to take courses to learn them even if they do. And they don’t have the networks that would allow them to easily get hired.

Broker firms can solve these problems. They can identify and vet local talent in communities where they operate. They can fund the training of that talent. And they can help place the talent into remote work positions, either through Hire-Train-Deploy or another model.

There’s also a real market opportunity for this, meaning for-profit entrepreneurs can mobilize to take advantage of it. It doesn’t have to rely just on philanthropy or government funding, as with relocation incentive programs. With falling birth rates, boomer retirements and growing talk of a structural labor shortage in the U.S., there will be growing pressure to find untapped pools of talent wherever they are, and these sorts of firms are positioned to help make that happen.

The challenge is that it takes the right talented entrepreneur or executive to create and grow these firms. Cope and Barrett had the ability to connect on both sides of the market. The supply of people who know how do that in struggling communities may be limited.

One thing cities and states might need to do is seek out people, potentially former residents, who do have those skills, and encourage them to launch remote work broker firms, and help make sure they are connected to sources of investment capital to grow them. The creation of broker firms will be critical in seeing that the existing residents of these communities, not just newcomers, are able to profit from our new remote work reality.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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