Marcus Lyons wasn’t sure how he felt about remote work before the pandemic.
Lyons, 34, worked for companies in and around Boise for years, but he always wondered about what it be like to take the plunge into the far more lucrative world of remote work. Through his professional contacts, he met people from across the country thriving in their home offices, far from the headquarters of the companies that employed them while still earning big city salaries.
“Seeing they were making anywhere from 25% to 50% more than I was making locally over the course of my time was kind of like ‘aw man, that sucks,’” he said. “Our local market is so low, but none of the living costs are as low anymore as when I first moved here either.”
But, after months of working remotely during the pandemic showed him he enjoyed spending his day outside the confines of an office, he set his sights on a new job with an out-of-state employer earlier this year. Lyons eventually landed a gig as a software developer for New York City-based news site Insider, where he now logs on every day and collaborates with coworkers from coast to coast. It can be a bit tricky to keep the time zones in mind and onboarding with a company from your home took some getting used to, but he is enjoying the transition.
Growing gap between wages, cost of living
This isn’t an unfamiliar story for Treasure Valley workers in white-collar jobs like technology, legal work or accounting. Once COVID-19 showed that nearly any desk job can be done remotely, it opened up a new world of employment opportunities for workers hoping to stay in Idaho without being bound by the Gem State’s historically low salaries. It also created fields of opportunity for employers nationwide looking to fill high-skill jobs without having to lure workers to major metro areas.
Alison Bruce, a partner at recruiting firm Talent Spark, said Boise’s labor market is especially ripe for national employers to recruit from because of the imbalance between our cost of living and what Idaho jobs typically pay workers.
“Now those companies can recruit talent out of Boise because they don’t need to be in New York, LA or Atlanta,” Bruce said. “Because we have such low wages, it’s an easier recruitment than other markets. I think part of the appeal is they don’t need to pay quite those New York wages to get similarly talented people with experience out of Boise.”
The higher wages were a big lure for Lyons to help him support his family, but he also balked at the confines of a traditional office job after so much time at home. He said many Treasure Valley employers were often expecting workers to come into the office the majority of the week and asking more for less competitive offers.
“I interviewed with a few local companies as well, startups and others and the difference in salary was still around 60%” Lyons said. “I talked to a recruiter locally about a position at Idaho Central Credit Union and they wanted a senior web developer with basically a job description of four people almost for $90,000 a year and it was like ‘no.’ You had to come into the office 4 days a week, or 3 days a week and I thought ‘why would I do that?’
What about if you want a Treasure Valley employer?
The world of remote work might be freeing for people like Lyons, but it’s frustrating for others.
Greg Lewis, a data manager, has been trying to make the move in reverse, switching from a remote job back to a Treasure Valley employer. He started off working locally for T Sheets, but when Intuit integrated his department with the main corporation based out-of-state he was forced into a hybrid work set up a few years ago.
Ever since, he’s been trying to find a way back to a locally based company. He’s tired of ping-ponging between his home office and the one at Intuit here locally he is expected to be at part of the week. He’s tired of being home with his kids, but still expected to complete his work during the day with crying children in the background of his conference calls. The blending of his home and work life means he doesn’t have a dedicated space for either, making it difficult to focus.
The problem is every time he tries to leave Intuit he can’t find a local match with benefits, health insurance and pay that’s even close to comparable.
“I grew up here,” Lewis, 31, said. “This is my home and I want to develop a great Boise company. Every circumstance is different, but this is a tough decision to make. I have 4 kids, and I plan on having one or two more and I’m telling you we paid maybe $1,000 for our kids with Intuit because the insurance was just so good and all of that was covered over the HSA they fund. We had a baby practically free. Those types of considerations are really important for us.”
Boise’s location far from larger metro areas meant its employers didn’t have to compete as heavily for high-skilled workers, and could still operate with lower wages for decades. Bruce said this is changing fast with the advent of remote work, but it’s a hard adjustment for local employers to offer packages to compete with the likes of Intuit in such a short time frame. This leaves people like Lewis in a tight spot for the time being.
“(Remote work) accelerated the need to increase the pay rates to attract and maintain your talent. That being said it’s hard to make up that you have historically pay rates all in one year so it’s put a lot of pressure on employers. It’s hard to go in and bring up everyone’s salary by 30% or 40% so they are making incremental moves, but we’ve been slow to respond to other markets that have to compete nationally.”
Office amenities, company culture not the same draw
This change in the market makes hiring look a lot different than it used to.
In early 2021, one of Jason Abbott’s colleagues left his position at vacation rental management company Vacasa. It seemed like business as usual. Abbott, 48, expected to post the job, interview some candidates and have it filled within a month or two. But, this was not the case.
He’s spent the last several months working with recruiters and interviewing candidates, but the job is still not filled. Potential employees keep requesting wages at far higher rates than Abbott sees in the Boise market. They’re also getting applications from workers who don’t live anywhere near one of Vacasa’s locations in Portland, Boise, Austin, Auckland, Santiago or Auckland, which means there would be no possibility for these younger developers to ever come work in the office.
It used to be that Vacasa’s collaborative work environment and office perks, like nerf guns and a barista, drew potential applicants to work for the company. Now, that’s not the draw it once was.
“We initially began recruiting locally, but more and more we’ve been pushed to eventually give up on that idea for now and accept candidates from anywhere even if they’re not near a Vacasa office,” Abbott said. “The market drove us to change our position. Looking back as a software engineer, simply being in the same physical space as other people working and overhearing things and overhearing conversations and seeing meetings happening were important experiences that made you aware of what this business does or how other people communicate.”
Lyons, more than a decade younger than Abbott, doesn’t necessarily see the office as a necessary training ground in the same way. He and other software developers have been growing and socializing online for years now, often learning skills completely independently of an in-person experience.
“I don’t necessarily worry about the next generation coming up and not having the skills of the previous generation, because what generation has ever had the same skills as the previous generation and hasn’t evolved?”