Kris Johnson

Kris Johnson

Association of Washington Business

Back to school this year is, unfortunately, not a return to normal. As summer turns to fall, the delta variant of the coronavirus means this remains a time of tremendous uncertainty for schools, teachers, students and families.

It’s still a time of great uncertainty and unpredictability for employers, too, who are well known for desiring certainty and predictability. Some are reevaluating their fall plans after the virus — in retreat at the start of the summer — surged back in July and August. For some employers, this has meant delaying plans to bring employees back to the office.

Fortunately, the success of remote work throughout the pandemic means it’s possible for employers to make this decision. One bright spot amid this ongoing pandemic is the growing role that remote work is playing in the economy, and the opportunities it’s creating for employees and communities, particularly in rural parts of the state.

When the pandemic began and large portions of the economy went into lockdown, we discovered very clearly that not all work must be done from an office. Some work can be done just as well remotely with a good broadband connection and some essential skills.

To help ensure residents in rural Washington are equipped with those skills, the AWB Institute and WSU Extension have launched the Washington Rural Initiative. The initiative, with support from companies like Avista and STCU, is modeled after a successful program in Utah called the Master Remote Work Professional Certification.

Students go through a month-long course where they learn how to improve time management, manage calendars and how best to use online communication tools. The course also covers how to execute a successful job search. At the end of the program, participants receive a Remote Worker Certificate that will help them compete for remote jobs in the post-pandemic economy.

A pilot project was recently completed with Wenatchee’s NCW Tech Alliance, and now the initiative is being expanded throughout the state starting in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.

Remote work isn’t unique to Washington, of course, but new Census data shows we’re well positioned to benefit from its growth. Washington’s rural population grew 9.4% from 2010 to 2020, according to recently released Census data. That’s less than the 14.7% growth in Washington’s urban areas, but a significant contrast with a national decline of 0.5% in rural population.

Rural Washington is growing already. Expanding remote work will help fuel continued growth and ensure increased prosperity in these communities.

The Washington Rural Initiative is just one of the ways the AWB Institute, the nonprofit workforce and economic development arm of the Association of Washington Business, is working to increase opportunity throughout Washington.

Nearly a year ago, the AWB Institute launched “Washington in the Making” with the goal of creating the foundation for lasting prosperity and opportunity for all Washingtonians as we rebuild from the pandemic. The initiative includes a data dashboard that measures Washington’s vital signs across 34 indicators for all 39 counties.

And earlier this year, the AWB Institute launched the Washington Workforce Portal, an online matchmaking tool that’s helping to connect college-age students with real-world job experience in their local communities. Now more than ever, it’s important we equip young people with the knowledge and skills they will need to find careers during and after the pandemic. In some cases, that might mean a remote work career.

Well over a year into the pandemic, most of us continue to face a large degree of uncertainty about what the future holds for us in everything from our kids’ schools and our jobs to how we travel and gather with family and friends.

One thing that seems certain, though, is that remote work is here to stay. That’s a big opportunity for rural Washington.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers' association. He can be reached at krisj@awb.org.

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