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'Lone Eagles' Flying From Cities to New Job Horizons : Business: Small employers are filling the work force as the new breed of entrepreneurs heads for the country.

AMERICAN JOBS. One in an occasional series about remaking employment in the U.S.

August 18, 1993|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STERLING, Colo. — Weary of city life and corporate pressure, Dan and Laurie Jones left Los Angeles four years ago and moved back to this prairie town where they had grown up and dated as high school sweethearts. Their modest plans for the future did not include becoming Sterling's leading entrepreneurs.

But soon an idea struck them: Why not train a brigade of technicians and contract their services to computer software firms, answering the thousands of inquiries those firms get daily from customers needing help installing or operating various programs? The computer industry said the idea wouldn't fly: Sterling, 120 miles northeast of Denver, was too isolated and its work force was too unsophisticated.

The Joneses--he a former consultant in database design, she an ex-auditor for the Carnation Co.--founded Jones Technologies Inc. anyway and even managed to coax a prospective client to visit Sterling.

The client was impressed by what he saw: The office was abuzz with ringing phones and eager workers fielding calls at their computers. Had the visitor asked, he might have learned that the workers were actually volunteers the community had sent over to sit and look busy in the hope of attracting business to Sterling. The calls all came in a prearranged pattern from friends at the local bank, school and college.

It took the Joneses 18 months to find their first client, but today their office space in the corner of a defunct downtown department store is truly abuzz. Fifty newly trained technicians--among them a former nurse, a one-time accountant, several college students and a mother of five grown children who wanted to rejoin the work force but not leave Sterling--handle up to 1,500 calls a day from customers of 20 widely known software programs.

After the meatpacking plant, the Joneses are the largest private employer in Sterling, and their firm, recently purchased by a privately held company, Skyes Enterprises of Charlotte, N.C., will soon buy and move into the abandoned K mart store outside of town and expand to 200 employees.

In an era of corporate downsizing--U.S. companies laid off 1,500 workers a day in the first five months of 1992--Dan and Laurie Jones are at the cutting edge of a trend with broad economic and social implications for the workplace: Small businesses, not giant corporations, are creating the new jobs these days.

And as "knowledge workers" drift away from large organizations, often the victims of layoffs or buyouts, the resultant growth in self-employment is changing the way America works.

"We seem to be recreating the original structure of this economy, reverting to an entrepreneurial economy, which was what built the country in the first place," said William Charland, a career counselor and fellow at the Center for the New West, a Denver think tank. The center has a name for the estimated 9 million knowledge workers who have left the city and started innovative businesses in rural America with the help of faxes, computers and overnight parcel delivery: Lone Eagles.

Consider the impact of Lone Eagles and the role of small business on the workplace of the 1990s:

* Last year Americans started 3 million businesses for primary or part-time income, according to independent researchers. Many will fail; some--although home-based and with no initial payroll--will grow, needing support services that will create other businesses and jobs. Thirty-nine million Americans today are working out of their homes, up from 6 million in 1974, according to the Center for the New West.

* Businesses with less than 20 employees--which account for nearly 90% of all businesses in the country--were responsible for the vast majority of jobs created from 1988 to 1990, according to government statistics. "This is a time with a lot of opportunity, and small business continues to generate jobs," said Bruce Phillips, an economic researcher for the Small Business Administration in Washington.

* In 1900, 50% of U.S. workers were self-employed, according to Paul and Sarah Edwards, Santa Monica-based authors and lecturers on home-based self-employment. That figure fell to 7% in 1977 and has now risen to 13%. The Edwards project that by the year 2005, one in three U.S. workers will be his or her own boss.

"Specialization is the code word for survival for someone who wants to be self-employed today," Paul Edwards said.

Among the examples of new niche businesses in a newsletter the Edwards publish are an insurance agent who specializes in policies for racehorses, an ex-tennis pro who matches student athletes with colleges offering tennis scholarships, a social worker who manages health care for elderly patients whose families are out of town and an ex-chef who designs and remodels kitchens for serious cooks.

Some communities, such as Steamboat Springs, Colo., are trying to recruit Lone Eagles with the enticements of a pleasing quality of life, reasonable living costs, access to sophisticated communications and upgraded airports.

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