Inga hit my hot button with her recent post “What’s in a Name“. Depending on whom you ask, the number of U.S. telecommuters ranges from between 2.8 million people (consider home their primary place of work, not including the self-employed) and 44.4 million (includes anyone works at home at least once a year).
The counting problem isn’t because no one has bothered to study the work-at-home population. The IRS, Bureau of Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics Small Business Adminsitration, and a number of private researchers all collect data about people who work from home. But they all come at it with their own needs and biases.
The big problem, as Inga points out is that no one agrees on whom to count. Bruce Phillips, a researcher for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) called the task of separating out the real work-at-home numbers as a “statistical Vietnam–the data goes in, but you can’t get it out.”
The population of people included in various counts range from people who work from home as little as one day a year, to those who do so the majority of the time (Census). Some sources count incorporated and unincorporated small businesses, others don’t. Some consider telecommuters to include road warriors whom, while they may be teleworkers, they are not not using technology to replace their commute–the classic definition of telecommuting. BLS and Census even include unpaid family workers among the work at home population.
None of the studies separate out those employees and business owners who work at home from those who work from home. For example, while a plumber may be home-based, he only earns his living with his head under someone else’s sink.
It seems to me the whole thing is a bit like studying meteoroids. We know there are a lot of them, we know there are different kinds, and we know they’re important, but we don’t know where they all are and not everyone agrees on which ones to count.
Of course I have my biases too. As a telecommuting researcher and author, I’m interested in the people who regularly work both from and at home because they offer the greatest potential to reduce global warming, energy usage, and traffic congestion. They’re also the ones who derive the most work-life benefits from telecommuting.
For those counts, I lean toward Census data. They ask employed workers where their principal place of work was during the survey week. Granted, some may have had an unusual week, but the numbers for 2008 show that 5.9 million called home their principal place of work. Of those, 3.1 million were home based businesses. That means that only 2.5 million employees, 1.9% of the working population, worked at home most of the time. That’s a long way from the 52 million people who hold telecommuting compatible jobs.
Of course, others, such as equipment and software suppliers, are just as interested in the mobile workforce counts (i.e. road warriors, plumbers, electricians). A reporter from Inc. magazine (they’re doing a month-long experiment with telecommuting) asked if I knew the size of the mobile workforce marketplace. I was embarrassed to say I didn’t, but as I thought about it, it goes back to the same problem–we’re just not capturing the data.
Over two dozen local, state and federal programs aimed at promoting telecommuting have been proposed or adopted in the past year. Federal funds are already flowing to the cause. Without proper statistics on the growth of the trend, the return on investment for these programs will be impossible to determine. I’ve actually submitted several proposals aimed at doing the research necessary to get a handle on the existing telecommuting population and coming up with a way to standardize the counts going forward. Everyone I’ve talked to seems interested, but so far no one’s been willing to put up the dough. Stay tuned on that.
Where do you get your stats on telecommuting? Have any good sources? Let’s share them around and see if we can solve this, finally.
Photo Credit: RaeA