When people gush about the vibrant business community in Minnesota, they’re often referring only to the Twin Cities. Minneapolis-St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs have rightfully earned a reputation as one of the nation’s capitals of commerce, and — alongside Chicago — are the most prominent places where business gets done in the Midwest.
But a focus on just seven of the state’s 87 counties is limiting, as it ignores thriving, century-old industries like health care in Rochester, shipping in Duluth, mining on the Iron Range, tourism in the lake country, agriculture throughout wide swaths of the southern and western counties, and the growing energy economy in vast areas of Greater Minnesota.
And today more than ever, a place in the Minnesota economy and an ability to work for one of those thriving companies based in the Twin Cities has little to do with having a home within commuting distance of Minneapolis, St. Paul or one of the suburbs. Telecommuting was a unique concept two decades ago, but today advances in our telecom network throughout the state have made it a growing reality for countless Minnesotans for whom a big-city career and a big-city lifestyle no longer have to go hand-in-hand.
In the face of this growing trend, it was with some surprise and disappointment that we read various stories and commentaries about high-profile companies like Yahoo and Minnesota-based Best Buy recently announcing a move away from policies that allow and encourage telecommuting.
But a look around Minnesota and the jobs being created that are no longer specific to one locale shows that those two examples, while headline-grabbing, are outliers.
Today it’s more and more common for a Twin Cities company to employ talented people from throughout the state who do their work from home, taking advantage of the growing rural broadband network that makes the remote workstation a reality in every corner of Minnesota. Rural communities and regional centers — once concerned about a “brain drain” in which talented, educated young people were moving away, often to the metro area, seeking jobs — are now seeing the opposite trend, as Minnesotans who want the pace of a Greater Minnesota lifestyle can often depart the city and the suburbs, and take their good jobs with them.
It’s that trend that is fueling efforts like eWorkPlace, a Minnesota Department of Transportation initiative designed to facilitate more telecommuting throughout the state. Scientists are not needed to prove that the infrastructure for providing high-speed Internet service throughout Greater Minnesota is far less costly than maintenance of our network of highways. And more people working from home means less traffic, fewer emissions and less-frequent need for road construction.
From the start of this trend, the state’s telecommunications providers have worked with employers and communities to provide and continually upgrade the state’s communications network, providing the high-speed, high-capacity and reliable broadband Internet that is increasingly in demand. The biggest names in the Internet world, like Google, have even come to Minnesota in the past year for free workshops to help hundreds of the state’s small businesses establish a Web presence and take their operations worldwide.
While two high-profile companies are moving away from telecommuting, it’s thriving throughout Minnesota, and it’s an increasingly vital part of the state’s economy as telecom advances continue to make it better. And it serves as a reminder that whether it’s in a towering downtown skyscraper or a home office with a laptop, a broadband connection and a view of Pelican Lake, the state of Minnesota is open for business.
Brent Christensen is president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance.