Super-Commuters: Going the Distance

Long-distance commuters are driving force in broadening talent pool

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 21, 2014

Nearly every Monday for three years, Paul Guthery III caught a 7 a.m. flight from Raleigh, N.C., to Chicago, arriving at his Northbrook, Ill., office between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.

By 2 p.m. on Friday, the U.S. director of information technology at Potash Corp. was headed out the door for a 4 p.m. flight home to spend the weekend with his wife and grade-school-age son.

Guthery was a “super-commuter”— someone who lives beyond the boundaries of the metropolitan area where he works, commuting long distances by air, rail, car or bus once or twice a week. It’s a growing trend in major regions of the United States, according to research from New York University (NYU). Although super-commuters may include those at the C-suite level, NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation conducted a study that found that the typical person is under 29 and more likely to earn less than $40,000.

“The 21st century is emerging as the century of the super-commuter,” the center notes in its report The Emergence of the Super Commuter. The study analyzed home-destination data for all workers in central counties of the 10 largest U.S. metropolitan regions by workforce size.

Dallas, for example, has seen a 38.4 percent growth in such workers between 2002 and 2009 and has an estimated 175,700 super-commuters. Houston has seen a 98 percent rise during that time and has an estimated 251,200 super-commuters, according to the NYU research.

Other major metropolitan areas that had increases in super-commuters during that period include New York (60 percent), Los Angeles (76 percent) and Chicago (41 percent).

Super-commuting allows an organization to look for talent beyond a geographic area, said Joe Fraser, staffing manager at RAIN Resources in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Fraser’s 25 years as a recruiter has included finding super-commuters for national and global tech companies.

“Over the past 10 years, especially, firms have hired people in remote locations to work in, or manage, a region far from their homes,” he wrote in an e-mail to HR News.

“You may have exhausted your local pool of candidates … or you need to broaden your [hiring] search” by bringing someone with technology expertise from Silicon Valley to Kansas City, for example, Fraser told HR News.

Employers prefer super-commuting over telecommuting, he said, because, depending on the position, organizations “do need them here—wherever ‘here’ is”—to attend meetings and work with others. Technology such as Skype allows super-commuters to remain connected with their families—a primary reason he thinks the trend will continue to grow.

Economic Factors

Meagan Bearce, author of Super Commuter Couple: Staying Together When a Job Keeps You Apart (Equanimity Press, 2013), thinks there are three primary economic factors behind the shift toward super-commuting:

  • Couples with dual careers. Super-commuting allows one member of a couple to remain on a career path if the other person wants to accept a job that otherwise would require relocation.
  • Career trajectory. A candidate is offered a new and better job, but the candidate’s family resists relocating.
  • The worldwide economy of the last several years. A worker whose employer downsizes may be forced to super-commute to another locale to keep his or her job.

Elwin Hornedo has been a super-commuter twice. In 1994, the San Diego resident drove six hours round trip in Southern California traffic every day for three months. Jobs were hard to find, and he’d just purchased a condo before being laid off. The commute ended once he found a position closer to home.

Hornedo, now living in Dallas, became a super-commuter again, in June 2012, when the company he was working for was acquired by another organization. He initially flew back and forth once a week between Dallas and Houston, where he was a senior project manager at Mattress Firm, before opting to drive the 300 miles to his job on Sunday afternoons. He returned to Dallas most weekends.

His commuting allowed his wife, who’d started a job, and their daughter, a high school sophomore, to remain at home while Hornedo focused on his career. His super-commute lasted six months, ending when Hornedo was laid off. Four months later, he landed a position in Dallas.

“If you want the right talent, [super-commuting] has to be part of the culture,” said Hornedo, who noted super-commuting was not uncommon at Mattress Firm.

Not so for Guthery. He had worked for PCS Phosphate in Raleigh, N.C., since 1998 as director of information technology, but when the subsidiary of Potash Corp. closed its doors, in 2000, he accepted a promotion in Chicago.

He was three months into his new job, shuttling between the two cities, when he and his wife decided not to uproot the family. Super-commuting, he thought, gave him “a shot at being the CIO for Potash Corp.” and he became one of the company’s two super-commuters.

However, “I think probably not having made the [physical] move ended up being an impediment for me,” he said. While his work team and family were supportive, he detected a feeling at the executive level that his failure to move his family signaled a lack of commitment—despite the long hours he often worked.

Factors to Consider

AUDIO: Joe Fraser, staffing manager RAIN Resources in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, talks about what HR needs to consider before and after hiring a super commuter.

Hiring someone as a super-commuter “can be really tricky,” Fraser cautioned.

“You do have to keep in mind that [for] the person you’re bringing in to this role, it really can be a big hardship,” the recruiter noted. He stressed that employers must be clear about their expectations.

“You don’t want surprises based on lack of communication later, because the person who will be a super-commuter is really altering [his or her]  life. … If it’s new for them, you want to make sure that two months later, there’s not a big issue—that had we just known this, we wouldn’t have made the hire. You shouldn’t minimize what this will take on the super-commuter’s part to have a happy, ongoing lifestyle that includes your company.”

There also has to be a shared understanding between the employer and the employee as to what super-commuting involves, noted Bearce. The author offered the following tips to employers:

Ensure that both the position and the employee are a good fit for super-commuting. Consider whether the person is skilled at multi-tasking and able to work independently.  Does the job description allow for a flexible schedule or does it require being in the office five days a week from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.?

Consider the needs of the employee’s spouse and family. Set clear job requirements, boundaries, and expectations so that management, the employee, co-workers and the employee’s family are on the same page. Is the travel time counted as work hours? What travel-related expenses are the employer's and employee’s responsibility? May the employee work from home in the event of an emergency or illness? Hornedo’s company provided him with relocation money, which he applied toward renting a room in a house in Houston; Guthery, however, was responsible for the apartment he rented with a colleague.

Identify the tools— such as teleconferences, Skype, Dropbox— that will make super-commuting easier.

Make sure that all employees are educated and aware of the policies surrounding super-commuters. If there are no policies, consider creating an e-mail that clearly describes the who, what, where, when and why that are pertinent to the super-commuter’s co-workers.

If there are several super-commuters at a corporation, sponsor a monthly or weekly gathering for spouses and children, so they can connect with others in a super-commuter relationship.  A company such as United Health Care in Minneapolis, which has consultants who travel out of state three or four days a week, could sponsor a gathering in the home office’s city, for example, Bearce noted. 

“There are so many variations on super-commuter that not all super-commuters would fit each scenario,” she said. 

Although Guthery was in Chicago five days a week, he felt unconnected to it.

“That’s an important part of your overall corporate life, to serve in that community, to know people in the community,” he said. “That was a big part of my life that [he and his family] were missing out on that whole time.”

He recommends that HR find a way to get super-commuters involved with their adopted city.

“It really will help them get full value out of the employees … helping [the organization] with sustainability and with the connections they make.”

Fraser concurs that smart organizations find ways for super-commuters to forge a link with their adopted city.

“For the most part, everybody in a super-commuter role knows, to a degree, they’re somewhat of an outsider,” much like a consultant is, he said. “You may still be viewed as a nonresident or nonlocal,” he acknowledged, “and that’d be tough to get around.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.


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