HELENA, Mont. – For Rick Ellis, work means never having to leave his back yard.
He builds and sells sports cars in a shop on his property north of Billings and gets everything he needs delivered.
“I can’t find any drawbacks,” he said.
Ellis is part of a trend that has made Montana second only to South Dakota in the proportion of people who work from a spare bedroom, garage, shop or the basement of their homes.
Washington state was eighth, experts say, largely because of its sizeable rural population.
New census figures show nearly 24,000 Montana workers 16 years and older – 5.9 percent of the total work force – work from home. The national average is 3.2 percent; South Dakota is first, at 6.4 percent.
Paul Polzin, director for the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the numbers reflect the rural nature of the state. The category includes plenty of farmers and ranchers.
Robyn Hampton, director of the state’s Small Business Development Center, said Montana’s high ranking should be expected in a state dominated by small, one-person businesses. In 1998, she said, Montana had 141,000 such operations.
She said the stigma once attached to people working at home is gone.
“Some businesses had a difficult time being perceived as professional and accepted if they operated out of their home,” Hampton said.
Evelyn Pyburn, editor of the Big Sky Business Journal, remembers that time. She moved her business from an outside office to her Billings home 17 years ago.
“It was at a time when women were very conscious of their role in the business world,” she said. “I was told not to do it, that it was not very professional. Some felt I would look like an unserious housewife, doing something for fun and not a real serious business.”
Ellis moved to Montana from New Jersey in 1993, hoping to continue his pilot’s career. When that plan fell through, he turned to his longtime passion of car building and working at home made the most sense.
Adding a shop increased the value of his property and he doesn’t have to rent a commercial building. He avoids a 45-mile drive to Billings.
Census figures also rank Montana high in the percentage of those who walk to work. Only workers in the nation’s capital (10.5 percent) and Alaska (7.5 percent) are more likely to walk to work than Montanans (5.7 percent).
In Montana – a state of 147,000 square miles – about 9 percent of the work force lives five minutes or less from work, more than twice the national average. Nearly three out of four get to work in under 20 minutes.
Pyburn has no regrets about working at home. It allowed her and her husband to be a greater part of her children’s lives as they grew.
“Time flexibility is just huge,” she said. “If you have two hours, you can immediately direct your attention to work. If the children needed me, I was right there.”
Her home business saved her time driving to and from an office, provided tax deductions and eliminated baby-sitting, rent and extra phone line expenses, Pyburn said.
“I learned to concentrate,” she said. “When it’s time to go to work at the business, it was time to go to work at the business. If I walk through the kitchen and there’s dirty dishes there, tough.”
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