Is Your Future in IT a Job in the Boonies?

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Struggling to find a job in IT in and around your home city or suburb? Consider a move to Jonesboro, Ark., Sebeka, Minn., or Macon, Mo. These locales might not jump out as being hotbeds of technology development or home to a large number of businesses or government agencies. But they are places where a growing number of technology workers are settling in order to find jobs in their field.

The source of these jobs is rural outsourcing companies, "onshore" IT service providers that market their offerings to clients as an alternative to offshoring or keeping IT functions in-house. Because some or all of their facilities are located in lower-cost areas in the United States, these companies can keep fees relatively low for their clients.

[ U.S. tech workers have another option: Move abroad for IT jobs. | Get ongoing advice from IT career expert Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

Before you plan your move to the country, though, consider that working in a rural area could mean significant lifestyle changes, particularly if you're accustomed to the city lights. And though the cost of, for example, real estate and health insurance premiums will likely be lower, not everything is less expensive. The lower salary that comes with a rural IT job could mean having to make sacrifices.

Still, if you like the rural life; are looking to start, advance, or wind down your career in IT; and don't mind relocating, joining an onshore outsourcing IT firm might present a good opportunity. And these options appear to be growing: "We are seeing an increase in open IT positions in rural markets," says Rachel Russell, marketing director at TekSystems, a technology staffing firm. Indeed, onshore outsourcing companies such as Onshore Technology Services, Rural Sourcing, Rural America OnShore Sourcing, and CrossUSA tell that they're hiring people in several IT disciplines.

Adjusting to the rural life Moving to a rural area of the country is clearly not for everyone. While securing a solid job in IT is a good reason to relocate in general, for someone who has grown up in a city, the culture shock of rural life might outweigh the benefits of landing a technology job.

Individuals and families will be forced to make cultural adjustments going from city or suburb to rural. "This is a huge deal," says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners, a research firm that follows IT hiring trends. "Rural can be politically, intellectually, and culturally very different. I realize that is a matter of personal choice, but it can be a difficult situation when a spouse or partner does not like the rural environment or if the IT professionals finds it lacking."

Some who took the leap have had to adjust. Software engineer Dora Eitel worked as a branch manager at a financial company before joining Onshore Technology Services in Macon, Mo., about three years ago. She now leads a team of data analysts who aggregate information and fill ad hoc requests for a financial services client.

Eitel was attracted to the potential career path Onshore could offer in IT, and she likes the fact that the firm hires U.S.-based people, even if they have no background in IT. But becoming part of Onshore meant making a big change. In Eitel's case, it was a positive one: "I could probably move to a larger city to earn a higher wage, but I moved to a rural community for the lifestyle it offers versus the lifestyle and chaos of city living."

It's not always easy to get people to move to a rural area after having worked for years at a large enterprise in the big city, however. "Imagine a guy in Dallas gets laid off after 25 years, and we're asking him to move to a place where it's below zero for several weeks out of the year, at much lower pay," says John Beesley, director of business development at CrossUSA, a rural outsourcing firm with operations in Sebeka and Eveleth, Minn. Nevertheless, the company prides itself on maintaining a stable workforce from those who make the move.

From the employees that interviewed, it seemed that those who had grown up in rural areas were most comfortable with working in rural locations.

Jerry Jensen, who works as a team leader, was out of work for about a year when he joined CrossUSA. Before that he was director of IS for a distribution company in Minneapolis, and altogether has been in the IT field for about 30 years. Jensen was actively interested in working in a rural area, where traffic wasn't a hassle and the pace of life was slower than what he experienced working in a city. "I like this environment, since I had grown up in a rural area of South Dakota and like the outdoor activities this area provides," Jensen says.

Another CrossUSA employee, Doug Michelz, an operations manager who works in the firm's Eveleth location, joined the company about a year ago after spending most of his 25-year career as an IT professional in the financial sector. That includes a 10-year stint at Northwestern Mutual Life, where he helped build the firm's information risk management practice.

Michelz was drawn to CrossUSA because of the location and lifestyle it afforded. While he's a Milwaukee, Wis., native and had worked in the downtown area for more than 30 years, for the most part he resided in a rural setting similar to where he is now in Minnesota.

Other factors made the move easier for Michelz. He's not married, and his children are either in college or soon to be. "With one daughter off to college and on her own, and the other on her way to college most likely in northern Wisconsin, we would be geographically dispersed anyway," he says. "When it comes to family vacations or the holidays, we are all traveling some distance in order to get together."

For some people the current economic climate -- with its still-high unemployment rate -- will spur a move to rural settings to land a job, says Karen Cooper, president of Smart IT Staffing, an IT recruitment firm. "We're finding in our day-to-day recruiting people are much more open to moving," she says. "If they've been unemployed for a while -- say, longer than few months -- they become very open to the possibility of moving."

Coping with the cost issues Rural outsourcing companies are able to keep their costs down largely because they can pay lower wages to employees. For example, new hires at CrossUSA typically make 30 to 40 percent less than what they earned in their previous IT job.That means you can expect to draw a significantly lower salary than you might get working in New York or Boston.

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