Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Business

Workers making longer and longer commutes Workers making longer and longer commutes

ST. LOUIS — Every Tuesday morning, Teri Dobbins-Baxter starts her commute at 4 a.m.

She leaves home in the south suburbs of Chicago and goes to Midway Airport, where she hops a flight to St. Louis. Then she makes her way to St. Louis University, where she works as a law professor. She then spends two days teaching and meeting with students and flies home Wednesday night.

The ranks of people like Dobbins-Baxter — who live in one metropolitan area but work in another — are growing fast. Technology continues to untether employees from their workplaces, while the weak job market and a lousy housing market have many families reluctant to relocate.

A study issued recently by New York University found that the jobs with this sort of arrangement climbed sharply in eight of 10 large metro areas from 2002 to 2009.

Some of these people work from home for companies in a different region. Some are traditional road warriors who travel all over. Some, like Dobbins-Baxter, have a regular commute — just one that spans states instead of a county line.

Regardless, said Mitchell Moss, an NYU professor and author of the study, the trend speaks to both the increased flexibility of modern-day workers — "the office" can be almost anyplace — and the challenges that two-income families face in a weak job market: Why uproot your family when your spouse can't get a job in the new city?

The trend illustrates how the economies of places like St. Louis are increasingly hitched to their neighbors.

"It tells you that there is an inter-regional economic relationship, which is growing between places like St. Louis and Chicago," Moss said. "A region's workforce is not defined by its immediate suburbs."

It also has implications for the people who live and work this way. Take Dara Taylor.

She works for a Boston health care policy nonprofit, from her apartment in the Central West End. She's from St. Louis, where her boyfriend and family live. About a year and a half ago, she became the nonprofit's first remote employee.

"Everything I do is by phone or email or by travel," said Taylor, who has worked for the organization for two years. "Because that's the case, I can work from another city."

So Taylor spends a lot of time on Skype and conference calls with colleagues from the home office. She travels two or three times a month to other states and occasionally back to Boston. In some ways, this arrangement is more flexible, but Taylor said it forces her to be more efficient.

"You'd think you can just roll out of bed and log in," she said. "But it requires a great deal of discipline. I actually work more (here) than I did in the office. It probably has to do with making up for not being there in person."

Then there are those for whom the road is the office. Jason Stokes lives in St. Louis but works in quality improvement for a Dallas company that makes pumps and seals for oil wells and power plants. He visits projects all over the world.

"Last year I spent 190 nights in hotel rooms," he said by phone from Los Angeles, where he's wrapping up a three-week stint before heading to Virginia and then India. "That was actually less than some years."

All the travel's not so glamorous, Stokes said, and it's exhausting. While he spends most weekends and off days at home, he misses his wife — who is in graduate school at Washington University, which is why they live in St. Louis — and their 9-month-old son. But he tried office life for a while and found the 9-to-5 routine just wasn't for him.

"It requires a real mind-set change," Stokes said. "I wasn't ready for it."

All these things — family, housing, the complexity of managing two careers in a weak job market — are big reasons why this sort of two-city existence is growing. Add in employers who are willing to be more flexible and technology that enables it, and Moss said he expects that growth will continue.

It can be a grind — Taylor, Dobbins-Baxter and Stokes all said they don't plan this kind of work life permanently. But at least for now, in this splintered economy and ever-connected world, it makes sense.

"We have to realize that skilled people are going to find work," said Moss. "Even if it's not in the same city where they live."

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