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Tulsa group will spend $11M on remote workers in 2022

A new pathway to building local talent pools may be to give remote workers cash incentives to relocate. One city, Tulsa, is spending millions to bring in new workers.

Remote workers are becoming a source of economic growth and high-skilled talent pools in local communities. But one city, Tulsa, Okla., may be ahead of the game in attracting roving talent. What makes Tulsa's program different is the sheer size of its spending.

Tulsa Remote, a nonprofit organization, will provide $10,000 grants to at least 1,100 to 1,500 remote workers this year, or between $11 million and $15 million. Grants include a year's membership to a local co-working space. The nonprofit was founded in 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and has awarded nearly 1,800 grants since then, according to program officials. The program is competitive. 

Tulsa Remote has had as many as 20,000 applicants in each of the last two years. An economic impact study of the program found spending by remote workers created some 600 new full-time equivalent jobs in 2021 alone. If the remote incentive programs grow as expected in Tulsa, spending by remote workers may create 5,000 local jobs by 2025. 

To qualify for a Tulsa grant, applicants must have full-time remote jobs. The median age of those receiving grants is 35, with an income of about $85,000. About half of the recipients are in tech-related positions, such as software development and IT support. 

"Impressive is the right word for Tulsa's program," said Evan Hock, co-founder and COO of MakeMyMove, an Indianapolis-based firm that connects remote workers with relocation offers. Other states and municipalities are creating similar incentive programs. Tulsa was among the first to realize that it "could recruit individuals and their jobs along with them," he said. 

The number of remote worker cash incentive programs has grown from about 20 in 2019 to about 76 today, Hock said.

Cash incentives vary. The biggest relocation payout might be West Virginia's $12,000 cash payment, $10,000 of which is paid in monthly installments the first year and $2,000 after completing a second year. West Virginia also offers free access to co-working spaces, two years of free outdoor gear rentals and other amenities. 

Cash isn't the only incentive

But competition for remote workers may involve more than cash. California and Connecticut are not offering remote workers cash incentives but are making broader appeals for relocation. "We can imagine that new restrictions will feel like a betrayal and cause concern about where to live and work," wrote Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont in an open letter to businesses and remote workers in the wake of the Roe vs. Wade ruling. 

Remote worker incentives at a glance
Remote worker incentives at a glance

Oklahoma has a stringent anti-abortion law. But Justin Harlan, managing director of the Tulsa Remote, said the program could draw people along the red-blue divide. Tulsa "is a purple city" with "a very good mix of red and blue" politics. 

"I believe that cities like this are going to be telling as it relates to the future of our country," Harlan said. "Where can we get out of the extremes and meet in the middle?"

Time will tell how social policies help or hinder their ability to attract and retain residents.
Evan HockCo-founder and COO, MakeMyMove.com

Hock said it's too soon to know how Roe vs. Wade being overturned will affect remote work incentive programs. "Time will tell how social policies help or hinder their ability to attract and retain residents," he said.

Through surveys, Tulsa Remote has found that many remote workers who relocate have been through a life change, such as a divorce or death, "and they're looking to hit the reset button," he said. A draw for Tulsa is its affordability compared to cities such as Austin and coastal tech hubs. 

The program only accepts applicants from outside Oklahoma with a full-time remote job and a willingness to make a one-year commitment to live in Tulsa, a 200-square-mile city with more than 400,000 people. 

How relocation incentive programs are funded

Funding for these programs comes from both private and government contributions. 

The Ascend West Virginia program is only a year old, with about 100 who have received grants or will soon get one. But it has a lot more money to spend on relocation grants,  thanks to a $25 million gift from Brad D. and Alys Smith. Brad Smith was a former CEO of Intuit.

Funding for Tulsa Remote comes from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a Tulsa-based private foundation that focuses on efforts to benefit the city. George Kaiser, president, CEO and primary owner of GBK Corp., an oil and gas firm based in Tulsa, is a multibillionaire who has spent millions on programs to help Tulsa, Harlan said.

"We're a very small sliver of his overall budget," Harlan said. 

Another early remote incentive program is in Vermont. Its program started in 2018 and provides reimbursement for eligible relocation expenses of up to $10,000, mostly through government funding. "Most people typically did not reach the full $10,000 award," said Hilary DelRoss, a spokeswoman for the program. It has awarded 435 grants, with an estimated economic impact to the state of more than $17 million. 

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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