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'Telecommuters' Work Where They Want : Business: Professionals telecommuting in substantial numbers include engineers, scientists, teachers.


PORT ELLEN, Scotland — Alan Hunter awakens to a golden Inner Hebrides island sunrise and heads for his computer.

After catching up on overnight electronic mail and news headlines, he eats breakfast, showers, then settles into the morning practicing his trade as a financial consultant, with customers as far away as Saudi Arabia. After lunch he tends his herd of 15 sheep.

"There are probably some disadvantages to this kind of life," he said as a gentle sea breeze ruffled the grass around his 19th-Century stone cottage near this picturesque farming village. "But I don't notice most of them."

Hunter, 45, is one of the vanguard of computer-wise professionals in various fields who are actually trying out some of the more exotic alternative lifestyles theoretically made possible by personal computers.

"I suspect if you look at any desirable mountaintop or skiing area or seaside area, you'd find people who are corporate refugees of one kind or another," said Gil Gordon, president of a telecommuting consulting firm in Monmouth Junction, N.J., and publisher of Telecommuting Review newsletter.

"Telecommuting," or "teleworking," as it's called in the United Kingdom, is a small but rapidly growing segment of the international work force.

The phenomenon has grown most dramatically in recent years in the United States. Link Resources, a New York-based market-research company, estimates that about 7.6 million Americans now work part time or full time at home--a 38% increase since 1991.

A recent Link survey indicated that 6.1% of the adult U.S. work force telecommutes at least part time. Managers, sales workers and specialists of various kinds account for half the total. Professionals telecommuting in substantial numbers include engineers, scientists, computer programmers and teachers.

Although telecommuting has been slower to catch on in Europe, it is actively encouraged by the European Community, individual governments and regional planning agencies, especially in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, urban planners see telecommuting as a way to reduce pollution and congestion around cities. The Finnish government is targeting economic development in declining rural areas.

Thomas E. Miller, vice president of home office research for Link, attributes the U.S. telecommuting lead partly to lower hardware prices and partly to culture.

"In Europe there's been much more interest at the corporate-planning level, the urban- and governmental-planning level," Miller said.

"In the United States, where we have a kind of do-it-yourself culture, and also what one could characterize as the most distinctive entrepreneurial culture in the world, it has come from individuals who are tired of sitting in traffic for two hours a day."

Telecommuting in Scotland is supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the development agency for this country's vast and sparsely populated rural areas, and by British Telecom.

In 1991 the Scottish enterprise financed "telecottages" in Loch Gilthead on the mainland, in the Orkney and Shetland islands and on the island of Islay. The centers were intended as demonstration projects to introduce residents to the benefits of information technology and to train them in using computers.

The Islay Community Teleservice Center in Bowmore, the island's capital, occupies a small former antiques shop next to the newspaper, the Ileach. The center's first volunteer chairman was Hunter, who lives 8 miles away in Port Ellen. Computers are increasingly used by businesses and farmers on Islay--site of a number of Scotch whisky distilleries--for such tasks as bookkeeping.

Eleanor McNab, a successor to Hunter as chairwoman of the teleservice center, uses the center's equipment to build a genealogical database of island families. But thus far, few residents of Islay have been convinced that telecommuting holds benefits for them.

"I would have to say the program has had limited success," said McNab. "We didn't manage to get any major contracts from outside employers, and it proved difficult to charge users on the island adequate prices to cover the full costs. So we've sort of geared down."

"One of the things that was hoped for was that remote typing work could be done," Hunter said. "You fax me your typing or send me a tape, and I type it and send it back by modem. That's been quite hard to do. There's been a hell of a recession in the U.K. over the past four years, and every typing agency in the country is cutting rates to hang onto whatever work there is."

Despite such disappointments, the center's future seems reasonably secure. It recently combined its business operations with the newspaper's. And it produces booklets and brochures for local businesses and the tourist trade, which, although small, is an important part of the Islay economy.

McNab, who was born on Islay, works as a bank officer in Bowmore--and farms. "I can't imagine living anywhere else," she said.

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