by Don Kirkman, Carteret County Economic Development Director
A perfect opportunity is emerging that can bridge the expanding urban-rural divide and help technology companies save money and recruit new talent in an increasingly tight and competitive labor market. As evidence mounts indicating the desires of many young workers to live outside of congested metropolitan areas, and as costs in urban markets continue to rise for office rents and worker housing, there is a solution that benefits tech companies, workers, and rural communities.
Recent studies reveal that many millennials and younger workers are seeking quality of life outside of urban centers. Increasingly, these workers are moving to rural areas, particularly in coastal and mountain regions, that offer daily contact with the natural environment outside of center city parks and other isolated urban enclaves. Rising housing and education costs are also causing young workers and families to exit major urban areas in favor of smaller, safer, communities that offer affordable housing, year-round outdoor recreation and good public schools.
This is unabashedly self-promoting, but the Crystal Coast is a perfect example of this win-win-win opportunity. In North Carolina, the Crystal Coast is an 85-mile stretch of coastline that extends from the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which includes 56 miles of protected beaches, southwestward to the White Oak River, which separates Cedar Point (Carteret County) from Swansboro (Onslow County).
As an economic developer in coastal Carteret County, I see a growing number of remote workers moving to the Crystal Coast. Many are employed by companies in the Research Triangle or Charlotte regions, but their employers allow them to work remotely. Often these new residents work at home, but we are also seeing new co-working venues created to accommodate this new cohort of workers seeking a healthy work-life balance outside of major cities.
Carteret County offers one of the best public school systems in North Carolina. The county’s 2019 SAT and ACT scores ranked behind only Chapel Hill/Carrboro and Watauga County out of North Carolina’s 115 school districts, and Carteret County’s high schools were ranked first in North Carolina in a recent statewide ranking. Add to that highly-ranked Carteret Community College and the marine sciences campuses of Duke, UNC and NC State, and it is easy to see why Carteret County is a magnet for young families and older workers alike seeking educational engagement.
Carteret County accolades include the state’s best beach (Emerald Isle), the south’s best small town (Beaufort), and an award-winning health care system (Carteret Health Care), that recently became the only Mayo Clinic Care Network affiliate in North Carolina, offering a collaboration with the world’s top-ranked healthcare system. For many new residents with school-age children, they enjoy a free public education that exceeds even the private school options in the urban areas where they formerly resided, and they have daily access to the county’s abundant water amenities and unparalleled quality of life.
The implications of this rural migration are significant for tech companies, and they offer significant benefits to employers in the technology space. First, in the fiercely competitive search for new talent, urban companies can offer remote working options that are increasingly appealing to workers seeking a quality of life outside the bright lights and big cities. And with less expensive housing and excellent schools and health care, young workers can pay off college debt, buy a nice home and spend substantially less time commuting or stuck in traffic.
Another option that is available to urban-headquartered companies is to establish satellite campuses in rural areas that offer the assets and amenities sought by many workers. These offsite campuses can provide more structured work environments for permanent and 1099 workers seeking an escape to the mountains or sea (think company-owned co-working spaces), as well as training centers for company employees. Training employees on new software? Why not spend a week training at the beach?
Many rural communities are struggling with declining populations, declining employment and declining tax bases. Even more affluent tourist-centric resort communities face challenges with heavy concentrations of lower-wage employment. Some of these communities offer spectacular natural beauty, charming downtowns, fine restaurants and eclectic shopping, as well as a wealth of history, art and culture. They would gladly roll out the red carpet for a company interested in establishing a satellite operation. I know we would in Carteret County.