Choosing Maine: The Best Office Ever
More and more Maine telecommuters are discovering that success is only a phone call - or a mouse click - away.
Bart Chapin lives on a two-mile-long dirt road in Arrowsic, on the east bank of the Kennebec River. Chapin telecommutes from his home, balancing his day between his machine shop next door and the computer in his cramped office. He designs machine tools and parts and sends the finished drawings electronically to clients throughout Maine and beyond.
"In the old days, there would be a bunch of us in one office with a massive library of engineering catalogs," he explains. "Today we don't need any of that. All you need is an Internet connection, preferably a fast one."
Chapin's wife, Lucy Hull, also telecommutes two days a week to her job as development director at the Chewonki Foundation in nearby Wiscasset. On Chapin's road alone, he ticks off a computer programmer, an engineer designing wind power installations in the Galapagos islands, a research biologist, and a retired neurosurgeon, plus his wife and himself, who are all working from their homes using computers and the Internet. "Plus there's three or four carpenters here who use the Internet and a home office to do all their billing and customer service," he adds.
Despite Maine's erratic pattern of broadband availability and ever-more-crowded satellite circuits, the number of Maine residents who are telecommuting to jobs in different towns, states, and even countries appears to be rising exponentially. "This wasn't happening so much ten years ago," Chapin says. "Now it seems almost everyone I deal with is working from home."
"We absolutely need to get a handle on this," declares Laura Fortman, Maine's commissioner for the Department of Labor, after hearing Chapin's list of neighboring telecommuters. "If you've got all that happening on a dirt road in Arrowsic, what's going on in places like Portland?" Currently the state has little or no data on how many Mainers are telecommuting to their jobs, the impact telecommuting is having on Maine's economy, or what sort of effect improving Internet access would have on attracting telecommuters from outside the state.
Fortman says labor statistics hint at the numbers but provide few specifics. In 2006, for example, businesses reported 614,700 payroll jobs, but other sources, such as tax returns, showed there were almost 679,000 Mainers earning non-farm wages. "The discrepancy between those numbers has piqued our interest," Fortman says. "Perhaps some of them are living here and working in another state, but a lot of them have to be telecommuting. We just don't know how many."
Plans to gather information on the telecommuting phenomenon this year have been postponed because of the state's ongoing budget crisis. "Yes, it's an interesting topic and, yes, we wanted to collect data about it," she explains. "No, we haven't yet because we don't have the funding."
Heather Hamilton thought moving to Maine from Manhattan in 2001 would be the professional kiss of death for her career as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. But she was pregnant with her first child, and she and her husband did not want to raise their children in New York City. When he found a job in Portland, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom for the next few years after they bought a home in Brunswick.
"I thought I would never work again," she recalls. "Boy, was I wrong." She started freelancing after her daughter was born, and within two months a company - ironically based back in Manhattan - contacted her about working full-time. "Neither they nor I had any experience telecommuting," she explains. "But I had enough experience at this job that they were willing to take a leap of faith. Telecommuting really wasn't being done in the industry in those days.
"It started out with them wanting me in the office in New York one week each month. It evolved into something more organic, where I might have gone in a day or two every week or sometimes I went several weeks without going there."
When accountant Mark Pepler began telecommuting from his home in Scarborough to his company's office in Boston in 2000, "I felt a bit like a pioneer," he recalls. "Since then, it's become very common. For clients, calling me at my home office is the same as calling me in our Boston or Baltimore office."
Pepler first began telecommuting for the international accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, then moved to Ernst & Young. These days he can run down a list of coworkers and acquaintances who show up only occasionally at a central office but are nonetheless "present" every day. "Someone just started with us in Falmouth, and another acquaintance just moved outside Denver," he notes.
Last October Hamilton and three colleagues set up their own consulting agency. "We're all telecommuting," she says. "I'm in Maine, and the other three are in Texas, New York, and Arizona."
Hamilton says her status as a telecommuter was helped by her age and background. "I was established in my career," she explains. "I was thirty-six years old. I had a reputation and connections and a unique skill set. People were willing to try something different to hire me. I was lucky about that."
The situation does have some drawbacks, she cautions. "I've been making [telecommuting] work, but it's not without its challenges," she offers. "There really are times when face to face works better than a phone conversation or teleconferencing. At the company where I worked before October, I didn't have the chance to network or tap into other people's expertise that I would have had if I were going into the office every day."
Her new computer, she adds, comes equipped with a Web cam for videoconferencing with her partners and clients. "At least we'll be able to see each other then," she notes.
The other disadvantage is related to the reason they moved to Maine in the first place. "It's a really long commute from here to anywhere else," she says.
Pepler lives only ninety minutes from his company's Boston office, so he can drive down a day or two each week as necessary. "I also do a significant amount of travel outside New England," he adds. "Some weeks I'm home all week. Other weeks I'm in Atlanta or Dallas or Boston.
"All in all, I have a pretty demanding job," he continues, "so being able to work at home in Maine allows me to put some balance in my personal life. Even if I have to work ten hours in a day, I'm here for dinner and bedtime for my daughter. And I can be so much more productive when I work from home."
One of Chapin's major complaints is connectivity, an issue that could be the major limiting factor to attracting other telecommuters like Hamilton to the state. While all Maine's cities and major towns have high-speed Internet available, either through cable television systems or DSL links, coverage in rural areas and small towns is spotty at best. For example, Arrowsic is too small to attract attention from cable television providers, and it lacks the necessary infrastructure for a DSL installation. Next-door Georgetown, by contrast, has DSL but not cable.
Chapin and his neighbors are limited to either a molasses-slow dial-up connection or a satellite service. He has both and likes neither.
"I need the Internet to be able to download the 3-D CAD [computer-assisted drawing] files of products," he explains. "Plus, all the CAD companies I work for expect me to update their products through the Internet. We're talking about files that can be hundreds of megabytes, and that's hard to handle with dial-up, let me tell you."
When Chapin signed up for satellite service three years ago, he was pleased with the results. But satellite access has been a victim of its own success, he says. "I think they over-subscribed it," he explains. "About half the people down here have it now. At peak times during the day, it can be slower than dial-up. The guy designing wind power installations for the Galapagos spends half his time at an Internet caf` in Bath or at the public library because they have faster connections."
His wife's employer, Chewonki, recently agreed to underwrite a cell-phone modem for her laptop so she can access the foundation's files from home. "Being able to work at home two days a week is real plus for her," Chapin explains. "There are much fewer distractions than at the office in terms of being able to talk to people on the phone and answer e-mails. Chewonki is a half-hour away, so she also saves an hour a day in commuting time."
Hamilton says she is on the telephone or the Internet six to seven hours a day when she's working at home. "A high-speed Internet connection is absolutely vital to make telecommuting work for me," she says.
"I've tried to impress on Governor Baldacci and others that the easiest way to build jobs in Maine is to invest in our electronic infrastructure," Chapin says. "If I had a high-speed connection here, I could hook up with my client in Kennebunk, for example, and teleconference from here, calling up files and showing designs over the Internet. As it is now, I have to load everything onto a laptop, then it's an hour and a quarter down and an hour and a quarter back. Many companies, especially the big companies I deal with, expect everyone they work with to have high-speed Internet. They operate in a very Internet-intensive environment, and they expect me to, as well."
That doesn't mean Chapin plans to move to an office in town. The attractions of having a self-designed work schedule are too strong. "I have a boat outside the window that calls to me on nice days," he allows. "Weekends are rather loosely defined around here. They might fall on a Thursday and Friday instead of a Saturday or Sunday."
Pepler says Maine has so much to offer telecommuters that he's surprised the state doesn't have more - or maybe it does and no one knows about them yet. "We've stayed in Maine because it has this wonderful sense of place," he explains. "My wife and I appreciate aspects of the state that you can't get in Boston. I'm a fisherman and a boater, and we're four miles from the ocean. We're living eight miles from downtown Portland, which I think is a very cosmopolitan city for its size. And we have a second child on the way. It's very important, giving our children the opportunity to grow up in a place like Maine. Telecommuting lets us do that."
- By: Jeff Clark