Laura Holmgren’s job as a 4-H Club program coordinator was “kind of in limbo” after maternity leave last year. She wanted to take care of her daughter, but she also enjoyed working. Plus, she’s the insurance provider for her family since her husband farms.

But after hearing about Utah’s Rural Online Initiative program, the 29-year-old Bear River resident pitched an idea to her boss: What if she stayed with the Utah State University Extension office in Box Elder County but worked from home?

“There’s a few things in the office that we have neglected that I feel like I could address remotely while I’m with my baby,” Holmgren told her boss, such as the website and social media. “It worked."

Holmgren is one of the 754 people who have completed the rural program since it started in October 2018. In its first year, 73% of participants were women, according to Russell Goodrich, senior program coordinator. Both of his daughters have taken the course, he added.

The goal of the program, which is run through USU Extension and funded by the Utah Legislature, is to help train rural residents, particularly those struggling with unemployment and underemployment, to work remotely.

Goodrich grew up in Tridell, an unincorporated community in eastern Utah of a few hundred people. The only way to find a job then, he said, was by looking in a newspaper. But now, the rural initiative provides another option for those who can’t afford, or don’t want, to move to find a job.

UTAH’S RURAL ONLINE INITIATIVE
The program’s remote work certificate course is:
• Free for residents of Beaver, Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Grand, Iron, Juab, Kane, Millard, Piute, Rich, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Uintah, Wasatch, Washington and Wayne counties.
• $99 for residents of Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele, Utah and Weber counties.
• $199 for out-of-state residents.

Participants take a one-month certification course online that teaches them skills, including time management. Holmgren said one of the biggest things she learned was how to communicate with her co-workers and supervisors and show transparency with the work she was doing. The course also introduces tools they may use, such as Slack, a messaging platform, or Zoom, a video conferencing service.

Then participants get one-on-one career coaching and can apply for scholarships to learn more skills.

Tonia Lewis freelances from home doing graphic design and marketing, with a focus on the tourism industry. The 40-year-old Salina resident got a scholarship through the initiative to become a licensed drone pilot, and now she can do drone photography for companies, she said.

Being able to telework from rural places helps people supplement income from their farms, which is an issue Holmgren is passionate about. She grew up in Washington County before going to Utah State University and moving to northern Utah. Her husband, Riggin Holmgren, is a sixth-generation family farmer.

“I get excited about things that help develop the state and rural communities,” Holmgren said. And in her opinion, the rural initiative is a “game changer.”

“Living in a rural community is really difficult and limiting on the options that we have for work and for just sustaining our family,” said Whitley Potter. The 26-year-old lives in Tabiona, a town of 165 people. “There’s not a lot here for anybody that’s wanting to be a work-at-home mom."

Potter started working remotely on her own about five years ago, including as a personal assistant and project manager for a solar panel company. There was a “learning curve” as she figured out how to “separate yourself from your home life and your work life.” Potter has three children, ages 5, 3 and 1, “so I really have to be like, ‘OK, this is my work time. I’m not mom right now.'”

Since taking the online skills class, Potter believes the program would help others navigate such challenges. “I had to just kind of go into it blind and be like, ‘Oh, this company is a scam. This company is better,'” she said.

But if she had training in the beginning, she said, “I feel like I could have started off 10 times quicker and better than what I originally did by myself.”

Brooke Jones “had always wanted to work online and had always wanted to work from home,” but she didn’t know how. “I felt kind of inadequate,” she said. Over the years, the 52-year-old Sevier resident said, she hadn’t kept up with technology. But after learning that the program would teach her how to use different programs, Jones said she thought, “OK, maybe this will give me the confidence.”

Jones took the course, and now she teaches English online to students in China. “I love it!” she said. The flexibility of the job allows her to wake up at 4 a.m. to work with her students before she takes care of her grandchildren while her daughter goes to work.

The program helped 63-year-old Becky Newman, of Ivins, get a job teaching Microsoft Office classes online through Brigham Young University’s campus in Idaho. "Once I got a little bit more established, they asked me to do some other things.” She helped with curriculum development, and now, she mentors other online instructors.

Initially, Newman said, she didn’t picture herself working remotely. But “I see the future, you know? That’s where it’s going. And I thought, ‘You know what? I need to be a part of that.'” Because she was willing to learn something new, “things opened up for me." And “once I retire, I’m not afraid of it. I could go out and get a supplemental job and stay at home if I wanted to."

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.