The Next Tech Hot Spot: Rural America

As even giants like GE and GM struggle to bring IT jobs back from overseas, one U.S. entrepreneur has found a niche in smaller cities where the talent is ample and costs are far lower.

There’s a lot of apocalyptic talk on the campaign trail about jobs moving overseas. But just as every action invites a counteraction, there’s also a reverse trend developing, with jobs being outsourced not to India but to rural America.

Corporations that once led the charge to India like it, and so do Americans with IT skills attracted by a work environment away from the rat race and long commutes of big cities—and who know how to code software.

A college degree is not required, and that’s a major distinction Monty Hamilton, the chief executive of Rural Sourcing Inc., has made in setting his business apart from the industry standard. “If you’re an elementary school kid and you can code, we’ll hire you,” Hamilton said at a recent panel on job creation at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.

After some nervous laughter about child-labor laws, Hamilton explained there’s a large reservoir of talented Americans who don’t finish college for one reason or another, including the recent steep rise in tuition, and too many are shut out from their chosen career. “I couldn’t care less whether they have a college degree or not,” he says. “If you can do the job, you can get the job.”

General Electric and General Motors are leaders in the trend to repatriate IT jobs, principally from India. Asked at a recent Gartner symposium whether GE had made a mistake in sending so much of its IT work offshore, CEO Jeffrey Immelt said yes. “At the time, they were the leader and other people followed suit, so we had this huge rush of sheep outsourcing to India,” says Hamilton, who was in the audience for Immelt’s talk.

GE’s goal was to outsource 70 percent of the company’s jobs total, with 70 percent of that amount going to India. “Now he’s working hard to bring them back,” says Hamilton. “He realizes he offshored all his technical talent he needs to have in the U.S.” The transformation is evident in GE’s current TV advertising, which proclaims “GE, the digital company that is also an industrial company.”

Hamilton says he tweeted out several of Immelt’s lines at that IT symposium, among them, “We no longer build industrial engines; we’re building rolling mobile data centers.”

“That was really a call to action from Jeff,” he says.

And it intensified the scramble to find qualified workers. In major U.S. metro areas, there are eight IT job openings for every five people to fill them. Rural Sourcing aims to bridge the gap between high-cost cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York and smaller, more affordable communities by creating Google-like office environments in old warehouses or buildings with historical significance that have high ceilings and exposed beams—and of course beanbag chairs. The goal is a great place to work in smaller cities that might otherwise be overlooked, and that offer a lifestyle that is affordable and appealing, especially for young families. “You can leave work at 5:30 and be at your daughter’s volleyball game at 5:45,” says Hamilton.

Rural Sourcing has four centers so far, in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Augusta, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; and Jonesboro, Arkansas—all places that offer a low cost of living and a high quality of life, says Hamilton. “If your joy in life is building software, you can do that in some of the best communities in the world,” he says. The tradeoff is where you want to live. Rural Sourcing is based in Atlanta, and Hamilton timed his drive the other day during heavy traffic—two hours and five minutes. “I remind myself how much they love those short commutes,” he laughs.

To flush out the talent they’re looking for, Rural Sourcing holds campus “hackathons” where blue-chip college tech prospects compete to build a system, typically for a nonprofit, and the best talent get offered internships. Eight percent of the company’s workforce is interns. The company also goes into high schools to promote STEM-subject learning, expanding the horizons of the next generation.

Hamilton grew up in Ripley, Mississippi, a two-stoplight town a half hour from Tupelo, Elvis Presley’s birthplace. His father was a truck driver, and his mother a nurse. “Hardworking, great family,” he says. But growing up in a rural community, “your horizons are pretty short. You don’t have a lot of role models that are knowledge workers.” He went to college on a football scholarship, and credits a comparative religion professor with sparking his entrepreneurial spirit when he challenged him to think rather than expect answers handed to him.

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Rural Sourcing is Hamilton’s second startup venture after leaving Accenture, a multinational outsourcer, where he started his career. Now that the tide has turned and jobs are returning, his mission is to create thousands of IT jobs in places where they don’t exist today, and make a profit doing it. “I find people making a profit and finding a purpose is not mutually exclusive,” he says.

The company’s corporate clients are happy to contract out IT work to rural America. There are no time-zone challenges or language issues, and they get the same low costs as if they were offshoring, he says. It’s a winning formula as businesses become more data-driven, and outsourcing less of a dirty word when American communities are the beneficiaries.Correction: Rural Sourcing has one of its four centers in Jonesboro, Arkansas. A previous version of this article incorrected said the site was in Pensacola, Florida.