What Tulsa and other cities are doing to woo remote workers away from Silicon Valley


Commentary: Competition is tight for tech workers as digital transformation hits overdrive, and some cities and states–and at least one country–are finding creative ways to attract IT talent.

Image: Vasil Dimitrov, Getty Images/iStockPhoto

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically increased the speed of our economy’s digitization which, in turn, has opened up opportunities outside highly concentrated and highly expensive tech centers like Silicon Valley. Plans for orderly, gradual technology transitions, often prepared by CIOs and intended to occur over the span of years amid careful oversight and preparation, are suddenly transpiring in mere months. This acceleration of digitization is leading to a related surge in demand for tech talent to support the transition. 

Cities that have prepared for a remote-first economy are now reaping returns. Yes, even cities way off the silicon grid like Tulsa, OK. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s now “Tulsa Time,” as Don Williams once sang (and which Eric Clapton more famously covered), for Tulsa and other cities like it.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Digital transformation…one remote hire at a time

In the US, the unemployment rate currently hovers at 6.9%, according to the US Department of Labor; of course, depending on how you define employment, the rate might be much higher. For example, according to data published on Axios, if you define an unemployed person as someone “looking for a full-time job that pays a living wage who can’t find one,” the effective unemployment rate in the US is 26.1%. Regardless of how we define the overall job market, the unemployment rate for computer-related occupations dropped from 3% in January 2020 to 2.5% in May 2020, based on data from the US Department of Labor.

Lots of demand. Little supply. 

Unsurprisingly, Linkedin’s report for August shows that software-related positions comprise up to four of the top five remote jobs (Figure A). All you really need for most such jobs is a computer and a good connection to the internet. Across the US, the pre-pandemic American economy had 918,000 unfilled IT jobs, according to CompTIA. The suspension of H-1B visas, which were used to fill many computer-related job openings, now makes the market for software talent even tighter.

Figure A

jobs.jpg

Image: LinkedIn

On the positive side, as the pandemic forced companies to allow remote working, it opened up a whole new set of hiring opportunities for businesses: They no longer have to look for talent locally.  Shelter in place takes us further from our coworkers but close to anyone who has an internet connection. 

While companies have been opening offices where there is talent, this trend will extend to individuals remotely distributed, even outside the confines of tech hubs. Some cities bet years ago that the trend towards hiring remote talent would grow and are now strategically placed to reap the employment results. TechRepublic writer N.F. Mendoza has showcased the best and worst cities for remote workers, with many of the best (like McKinney, TX) well outside the standard technology hubs, and some of the worst, like Boston, normally thought of as great places for tech.

I thought it would be interesting to dig into one of these unlikely new tech hubs to see what it’s doing to enable remote tech workers. I imagine most tech folks will never visit Oklahoma, so I figured that made it a great place to start. 

What places like Tulsa are doing to attract tech talent

Tulsa, OK isn’t a tech center–heck, it’s not even the center of Oklahoma (that would be Oklahoma City). With a population of just over 400,000, Tulsa may seem like an unlikely place to welcome a new generation of WFH tech workers, but the city has been preparing for this reality for some time. Since 2018, the Tulsa Remote program has offered remote workers moving to Tulsa $10,000 in cash, a desk at a local co-working space, and help finding housing. Led by the local George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), its executive director, Ken Levit, decided to take a people-centric approach to reinvent the local economy.

The foundation is partnering with several institutions training talent in fields that are high in demand. They brought the Holberton School of software engineering (founded in San Francisco by two young French software engineers) to train Silicon Valley-grade developers in Tulsa and opened its campus there last January. They also partnered with Foundry College, which provides months-long training programs for high in-demand skills such as Salesforce administrators.

Tulsa is not only a place where you can find talent; there is also a likelihood that you will not need to pay as much as equivalent talent would expect in large cities. The median home price in Tulsa is approximately $136,000 compared to approximately $630,000 in New York City.

With a low cost of living, GKFF is also making sure that the quality of life is good. One of its many initiatives is a 100-acre and $500 million investment in Gathering Place, a park that allows Tulsans to unwind. As Michael Basch, a GKFF Advisor, said in an interview, “before the pandemic, people wanted space, but now they need space.” The pandemic is taking a toll on the remote workforce, and outside activities are a great way for people to relax.

SEE: How to work from home: IT pro’s guidebook to telecommuting and remote work (TechRepublic Premium)

Top companies are already starting to take note of Tulsa. The city made it into Tesla’s final round for its new facilities, competing against Austin, TX. A talent pipeline development leader at Google told Basch that the company would consider opening offices in the city if they could find 500 diverse software engineers to hire, a goal that Basch hopes to achieve soon. Among the hundreds of people who moved under the Tulsa Remote program, some are already working remotely for Cisco, ADP, Deloitte, IBM, and Microsoft.

Tulsa is not the only non-traditional tech hub seeking to attract talent. Vermont paid remote workers $10,000 to help them move there and work from remotely. Maine has offered a tax break to reduce student loan burdens. Newton, IA has offered $10,000 cash to new home buyers. Alaska has offered a slew of grant programs and tax incentives. North Platte, NE offered up to $10,000 as a signing bonus for workers, and Heartland Lakes, MN hired a branding agency to attract remote workers

Even Finland is investing heavily in wooing technical talent. Really wanna get away? Apply now for a Free 90-Day Helsinki Relocation Package and enjoy its City as a Service. You’ll find lots of smart software engineers already there who want to enjoy the quality of life as well as the top-notch facilities for efficient remote work and study.

While some of these locations haven’t always been the first place to look for top technical talent, it may be time to include them in your search. It’s also time for cities to step up their efforts to recruit talent that may be fleeing the high costs of tech centers like Silicon Valley. Tulsa demonstrates some things cities can do to appeal to this new generation of tech workers.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine.

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