Making Remote Work: Utah Extension creates opportunities

In 2018 Utah State University Extension launched the Rural Online Initiative (ROI), a training and certification program that teaches people how to become effective remote workers and find remote jobs. ROI is moving the needle: In the last four years, more than 300 rural residents across 21 counties have found work after completing the Master Remote Work Professional (MWRP) certificate course. The ROI team believes the program is on track to help another 400 MWRP graduates find work in 2022.

Making Remote Work

Extension program boosts opportunities, salaries in rural Utah

By Paul Hill (with Heather Martin)


Making Remote Work: Extension Program Boosts Opportunities, Salaries in Rural Utah

Copyright © Extension Foundation Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Published by Extension Foundation.

ISBN: 978-1-955687-14-0

Publish Date: June 3, 2022

Citations for this publication may be made using the following: Hill, P., and Martin, H. (2022). Kansas City: Extension Foundation (2022). Making Remote Work: Extension program boosts opportunities, salaries in rural Utah (1 st ed). ISBN: 978-1-955687-14-0

Producer: Ashley S. Griffin

Peer Review Coordinator/Technical Implementer: Rose Hayden-Smith

Evaluation Support: Paulina Velez

Technical Implementer and Co-writer: Heather Martin

Welcome to Making Remote Work: Extension program boosts opportunities, salaries in rural Utah , a resource created for the Cooperative Extension Service and published by the Extension Foundation. We welcome feedback and suggested resources for this publication, which could be included in any subsequent versions. This work is supported by New Technologies for Agriculture Extension grant no. 2020-41595-30123 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For more information please contact:

Extension Foundation c/o Bryan Cave LLP One Kansas City Place

1200 Main Street, Suite 3800 Kansas City, MO 64105-2122


Rural Utah was in an employment drought.

In 2017, the median unemployment rate among the state’s rural residents was 5.6%, compared with 3.1% for urban residents. Median salaries were also lower in Utah’s rural counties than they were in the big cities because high-paying rural jobs are scarce. B ut rural Utah is just as rich in talent as the state’s urban centers. The problem is that the work and income opportunities have been unevenly distributed. In 2018, Utah State University Extension set out to change that when it launched the Rural

Dr. Paul Hill, USU Extension professor

Online Initiative (ROI), a training and certification program that teaches people how to become effective remote workers and how to search for remote jobs. The ROI program also certifies Utah business leaders to become effective leaders of remote employees, giving them access to a deeper pool of job candidates.


The ROI program is moving the needle: In the last four years, more than 300 rural residents across 21 counties have found work after completing the Master Remote Work Professional (MWRP) certificate course. The ROI team believes the program is on track to help another 400 MWRP graduates find work in 2022.

When adjusted for population size, 261 rural Utah jobs are similar to 17,335 jobs in urban Utah counties.

Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox calls ROI “one of the best rural economic development initiatives that we’ve done in the history of the state of Utah.” It’s also a prime example of what it looks like when Extension identifies a need in the community and works with public and private partners to address that need.

More Opportunity, More Money

The MRWP course has enrolled more than 1,800 people, and they come from a broad range of circumstances and for a variety of reasons. Marriah Birch enrolled because she had been laid off from her local job and needed a position that would allow her to stay home to help care for her grandson,

Empowering Rural Utah Through Remote Work Marriah Birch, Master Remote Worker Program course graduate


who was born with a critical heart condition. ROI trained and eventually led her to a position with a Heber City, Utah-based company —100 miles from Birch’s home in Carbon County, with one of the lowest median household incomes in the state — that helps people with disabilities find work. “It really was just a blessing and a miracle that it happ ened all at the right time,” Birch says .

Carolyn Lewis, who teaches online nursing courses, took the ROI course because she had worked remotely before but had found herself letting work take over her life. “Some days, I was working 20 hours straight without stopping,” she says. “I didn’t set any boundaries for myself. I even took my laptop with me to pre-op for my sinus surgery and worked all the way up until they put the medicine in my IV.”

“Remote Work Radio” (produced by the ROI program) ROI graduates talk about their remote work training and job experiences.


In the MWRP course, Lewis learned to set boundaries between her work and her personal life. She says she no longer takes her computer with her everywhere she goes and she’s getting the sleep she needs. “If my work’s not done, I still go to bed,” she says. “I’m trying to be more disciplined about those self- care things.” Not only are MWRP graduates like Birch and Lewis finding jobs, they’re finding better -paying jobs than they had before they took the course: the median salary of MWRP graduates has increased 88%, while total salaries across all participants who found remote work increased by 70%. Course participants also report that what they’ve learned has had a positive psychological effect: 86% say they now have a higher level of confidence in finding remote work opportunities.


Supply for the Demand

Training employees to be successful remote workers is only half of the ROI program equation. The other half is about increasing the availability of remote positions, which starts with the Master Remote Work Leader (MRWL) course. This research-based certificate course teaches business leaders how to develop remote work plans, create remote positions, and keep remote workers engaged and productive.

More than 154 executives have completed the MRWL course since February 2020,

and many of them say it has inspired them to make remote work a more integral part of their operations. “I was impressed with the individual work in this course as well as the online sessions,” said one MRWL graduate. “I thought it was quite challenging … [and] the course instructors provided a variety of resources and examples from how other businesses have adopted remote work, [which] I have used in my organization.”

Broadband and Broad Support

The ROI program would not have been possible if Utah did not have such reliable high-speed internet access: 97% of Utah residents have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband, according to BroadbandNow. Broadband access is critical for remote work, which relies heavily on video conferencing and other data-intensive tasks that require high-speed internet connections.

The financial and political support of the Utah state legislature has been fundamental to the ROI’s success, as well. This idea was actually inspired by former Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert, who challenged rural leaders to develop solutions to the economic problems they were facing. The idea of connecting rural residents to remote jobs was brought to USU Extension because rural leaders knew that we understand the communities we serve and that we had the expertise to develop a world-class program to make this idea a reality. Once USU Extension developed the program plan for ROI, the funding quickly fell into place. (See “ROI Funding and Development.”)

The Future of Remote Work

The ROI program was, serendipitously, ahead of the remote-work curve.


When USU offered the first cohort four years ago, fewer than 6% of Americans worked primarily from home, according to the American Community Survey. Post-COVID, organizations scrambled to keep business operations going virtually and as many as 35% of employees were working remotely by May 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A March 2022 BLS report showed that this number has fallen to 10%, closer to but still higher than the pre-pandemic level.

Join the Remote Work Movement

The ROI program is an asset not only to Utah but to any state looking for solutions to rural unemployment, economic diversification, and rural-urban migration. Through the ROI affiliate program, Extension professionals across the country can connect talent in their rural communities to meaningful remote work opportunities regardless of where the employer is based. Here’s a basic roadmap for Extension professionals considering whether to launch a remote work development program in their states: Step 1: Complete the MRWP course — this is the best way to understand the program and what it offers. MRWP certification is also required to become an affiliate program coordinator. 

 Step 2: Meet one-on-one (virtually, of course) with ROI program leaders to go over the process of becoming an affiliate.

 Step 3: Meet with a program leader to discuss implementation in your state (e.g., student intake, payment methods, training, marketing materials, co-branding, etc.) The momentum of the ROI program is strong. People across rural Utah (and, increasingly, other states) are overwhelmingly open to the opportunity of remote work — they are innovative and eager to learn new skills that will allow them to prosper in a changing economy. Predictions vary for how prevalent remote work will be in 2023 and beyond, but the general consensus seems to be that the number will stay higher than it was — especially for higher-paying jobs — for the foreseeable future.


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