Lifestyle Benefits Lure Engineers Back to Small-Town America

MISSOULA, Montana— Back when James Stephens graduated from the University of Montana with degrees in chemical engineering and industrial microbiology, the fly-fishing in the sleepy city of the northern Rocky Mountains was unmatched. So were the views. But there was not a biotech job within 400 miles.

Today Missoula has become an unlikely engineering and technology hub. There are 33 computer and telecommunications companies alone. And Stephens, who left Montana to work at Fortune 500 companies including Cargill and Tyson Foods, has happily come home to join them, bringing his startup biotech company, Blue Marble.

“There’s a strong desire for urban flight, and that’s what’s really getting people to look at places that wouldn’t traditionally pop up when you’re thinking about engineering, like Montana or rural Colorado or Oregon,” says Stephens, whose firm has hired 19 scientists and other employees at its new base in Missoula.

In an age when overnight delivery and virtual communication make it possible to do business anywhere, more technology and engineering companies are moving away from places like Silicon Valley and Route 128 to small and mid-sized cities where the quality of life helps them to attract high-demand employees—Missoula and Bozeman, Montana, for example, Hazelton, Missouri, and Nashua, New Hampshire.

“The smartest people in the world live where they want to live,” says Alex Philp, founder and chief technology officer of a computing company called TerraEchos that has also set up shop in Missoula.

Philp calls this shift “a very significant trend.”

Smaller towns, he says, are attracting “people who want to be able to walk out their front door and go fishing. They like to be able to ride their bike to work. It dawns on them that there can be a balance here between lifestyle and work. It’s hip. It creates a zeitgeist that leads to incredible creativity.”

A recruiting ad for a photonics company across the state in Bozeman promises “clean air and national forest access” and “unrivaled outdoor opportunities for skiing, hiking, climbing, biking, rafting, and camping.” Bozeman, says the ad, is “an outdoor enthusiast’s dream” with an “ideal lifestyle.”

Many of these emerging small-town technology clusters are around universities—which, in several of these places, have strong engineering programs producing graduates who want to stay put. Others are in states that, like Montana, aggressively go after graduates, pitching everything from access to policymakers to blessedly brief commuting times.

“I’m sure there are some hardcore folks that are firmly rooted in big cities,” says Brigitta Miranda-Freer, director of business development for the Missoula Economic Partnership, who moved to Missoula from Washington D.C., and whose job is to attract new business. “But it’s surprisingly easy to get your head around living in a place like Missoula. The quality of life is a huge draw. We have this community of happy, smiling, healthy people.”

Jeff Nestel-Patt, director of marketing for polysilicon provider GT Advanced Technologies, worked temporarily in Santa Clara, California, after GT made an acquisition there. “Driving around those crowded, congested streets, I was just glad I didn’t have to do that on a daily basis,” says Nestel-Patt, who grew up in the Midwest.

It’s not just short commutes that lead employees to make different choices in their job location, says Stephens. “Compared to Seattle or L.A. or Silicon Valley or Houston or the Research Triangle in North Carolina, there’s a radically different work ethic here. People in Montana will show up for work on time. They’re not on Facebook and Twitter all day.”

A disadvantage? High airfares away from busy routes, which Philps says has the potential to slow the trend.

Not all of the technology and engineering companies in small towns moved from elsewhere. A few began there, and have resisted the temptation to leave.

The consulting engineering company Stanley Consultants does business in 50 states and 103 countries, but has been headquartered for 100 years in Muscatine, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

“Several times in our history we looked at the comparative merits of being somewhere else, like Chicago,” says Dick Stanley, chairman emeritus. “We never saw a comparative advantage to being anywhere but here in Muscatine.”

Not everyone is of the same mind on this, Stanley acknowledges. “There are some people who wouldn’t be caught dead living in a community our size. But we are very attractive to a sizeable slice of the engineering population who see the advantages of living and raising families here while at the same time being able to work on challenging projects across the country and around the world.”

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