Working from Home and Broadband Access in Oregon

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By Josh Lehner, Oregon Office of Economic Analysis
There is considerable speculation about how the pandemic will change the way we live. In particular our office is fielding a lot of questions about working from home and whether households may increasingly choose to live in the suburbs or rural areas as a result.

Solid data on 2020 migration patterns is a long way away. And early indications based on Zillow home searches show Americans are not increasingly looking toward the suburbs. However, time will tell to what extent we do alter our lives as a result of the pandemic.

With that in mind, our office has pulled together and updated some of our previous research on working from home and broadband access here in Oregon.

It is important to keep in mind that to the extent working from home represents a long-run growth opportunity, and it does, many of these changes tend to be incremental. Yes, there is a spike in working from home due to the pandemic. However, when it is safe to do so, most workers will likely be recalled to the office. Permanent massive, wholesale changes to they way we work are unlikely. That said, even incremental changes and evolutions can matter for regional economies, workforce needs, commercial real estate, and the like.

I want to highlight three main findings.

First, the reason we care from a big picture perspective relates to Oregon’s long-run outlook. One of our comparative advantages remains the state’s ability to attract and retain talent. To the extent that Oregon sees any sort of bump in COVID-related migration, that’s beneficial to the long-run outlook.

Second, within the state the folks working from home are diversifying our regional economies. Outside of the Portland area, those working from home tend to be concentrated in occupations that aren’t as prevalent locally as they are nationally. In essence these workers are voting with their feet, saying they want to live in our communities. However it is harder to find a job in their chosen field, so they are making it work by bringing their job with them, or starting their own business. This increase in economic diversification should make our regional economies more resilient and better able to withstand different types of recessions over time.

Third, broadband is a critical component for a number of reasons. On the economic side, having residents better connected to labor markets to search for jobs, and interact with co-workers and clients is important. It’s not just the availability of a broadband connection, but really about the speed, reliability and price of that connection. We know once you get outside of the major cities in the Willamette Valley, the speed and reliability can fall off, impacting potential growth opportunities.

However broadband access also matters considerably for social connections, and increasingly for education needs as students do more online learning due to the pandemic. We also know there a lot of inequities regarding access to technology. This goes for urban vs rural, young vs old, rich vs poor, and white vs Black. How all of those factors interact matters considerably for social, economic, and education connections in society.

Bottom Line: Oregon overall does better than much of the country when it comes to broadband access and working from home. There remains a lot of potential for future growth. However, expectations should be realistic. It is unlikely that we will see massive changes in where we live and how we work. Metropolitan areas still provide a lot of benefits, including thicker labor markets for future job opportunities. However, even ongoing incremental shifts matter and to the extent the economy continues to diversify, should pay long-run dividends for the state.

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