Town, gown, and attracting remote workers

Two universities, Purdue and West Virginia are hoping remote workers might like the community to be found in college towns:

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Universities have long hosted corporate incubators, but the new programs represent another way the pandemic has shifted the way colleges think about who works on campus, and why. Many universities are considering how employees’ desires for remote work will affect their own human-resources policies. These colleges, however, are making a play for other people’s employees, showing that campuses will both influence and be affected by this major shift in where Americans live and work.

Purdue is set to hold a visitors’ weekend for a small group of applicants for a so-called “remote-working community” in the campus’s business-and-research park, which is operated by the university’s research foundation and a development company. These people will uproot their lives — some with a deal-sweetening $5,000 — to move to West Lafayette, Ind. They can live at discounted rates in housing built in the Purdue park and access campus facilities, including the library and a co-working space…

West Virginia University and its state’s tourism agency are teaming up to try to recruit outdoor enthusiasts to Morgantown, Shepherdstown, and Lewisburg. The campus is offering free certifications — in remote work or remote management — through its business school. Other incentives, backed by donors and the state, include $12,000 in cash over two years, the subsidizing of activities like skiing and rafting, and co-working space and social programming…

Remote employees want to be in places with amenities — locations with “substantial infrastructure” and a “built-in community,” said Evan Hock, co-founder of MakeMyMove, which promotes incentive packages for relocations and has listed the offerings of both West Virginia and Purdue. The company and Purdue developed the incentive package together, he said. He expects college towns to hold these employees’ interest, he said. “Ultimately, the bet that the university is making is that more smart people in a region is better.”

This assumes, of course, that colleges will be back to their thriving residential centers this upcoming year and in the near future. During COVID-19, college towns may not have been much better than many other locations in the United States regarding finding community.

Another factor in favor of this idea: with the period of emerging adulthood where college graduates have years after graduation to settle in to college life, more might appreciate being around some of the things they liked about college. This could help the transition by providing access to college energy and activities without the same day-to-day schedule.

However, I do not think it is a surprise that these two schools are featured in this story. How many college graduates, even from these schools, want to stick around in these locations? In contrast, would schools like UCLA or NYU want to offer such programs? The incentives are being offered to attract workers to western Indiana and West Virginia because they are the kinds of places even remote workers might not consider. Remote workers can go a lot of places but they also probably follow popular patterns of where Americans would go if they could.