How to attract new companies to Maine is one of the most contentious, vexing and persistent problems facing the state. However, if the goal is to bring in more high-paying jobs, perhaps it is time for Maine to make a pitch to employees as well as employers.

Fueled by the proliferation of high-tech jobs and high-speed Internet, and supported by companies increasingly convinced of the benefits of telecommuting, the number of people working full-time from home is growing rapidly. Maine, with its low costs and high quality of life, would seem a good fit for these workers who can work anywhere, and the state could certainly use more young, well-educated and well-paid residents.

Before the state can attract more of these workers, though, policymakers need to know exactly how many are here, why they choose Maine, and what the state can do to support them.

Part of that work is under way at the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine, which is studying Maine’s “remote workforce,” a notoriously difficult group to pin down, given its relative newness. There is also an effort to bring to Portland next year a national conference on the subject.

Policymakers should follow and support these efforts, which will help Maine take advantage of this growing phenomenon.

According to the group at USM, 5.3 percent of Mainers work from home, up from 4.3 percent in 2000, though half are self-employed and not a part of remote workforce. Nationwide, 63 percent of employees are allowed to work at home at least part of the time, compared to just 34 percent in 2004, according to the National Study of Employers.

It is clear that companies once worried about how allowing remote work would affect their ability to oversee employees and build a company culture are coming around. Telecommuting can lower costs, provide flexibility to workers, widen the available talent pool, and even increase productivity.

Insurance giant Aetna, where 47 percent of employees work from home, said it saves $78 million a year by downsizing its offices. In addition, the company said telecommuting has raised its retention rates.

The average work-from-home employee is a 49-year-old college graduate who makes $58,000 per year and works for a company with more than 100 employees.

But telecommuting appeals to a wide variety of people: those who want to live in an area where there are fewer nearby opportunities in their field, or who want the freedom to move around; those with child or elder care responsibilities; those who want to avoid a long and tiring commute.

Maine, with its limited number of brick-and-mortar businesses looking for high-tech help, lower-than-average cost of living and better-than-most quality of life, has a lot to offer these workers. And once here, these workers improve the quality of the state’s workforce and act as an antidote to some of the state’s most stubborn problems, including its aging population and stagnant wages.

The question, then, is, what can we do to bring remote workers to Maine, and how can we support them once they are here?

The work being done at USM will define the remote workforce as it stands in Maine now, and perhaps provide details about individual experience that can help shape policy. A conference would show Maine is serious about building this part of the workforce, and generate new ideas for making remote employees aware for what the state has to offer.

If working from home is going to be a critical part of tomorrow’s workforce, then there is no reason that home shouldn’t be in Maine.

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