FRESNO -- Up and down the central San Joaquin Valley, a growing number of people are taking advantage of technology that frees them from cramped cubicles, loud officemates and commuting to the office.
They are part of a slow -- but unmistakable -- nationwide trend in which more workers are doing their jobs from their homes, either as self-employed entrepreneurs or telecommuters working for companies hundreds or thousands of miles from their computers.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 14,200 people in Fresno County worked from home for their primary job in 2010. That is about 4.1 percent of the county's working population, and an increase of almost 3,500 since 2000.
From Merced County to Tulare and Kings counties, the number of home-based workers in 2010 (when the last census was conducted) was estimated at more than 27,300, or slightly less than 4 percent of people with jobs.
Nationally, the number was 5.8 million. That's a relative drop in the bucket of the overall U.S. work force -- about 4.3 percent -- but it's about 1.6 million more than in 2000, the Census Bureau reported.
The rapid pace of technological change is believed to be the primary driver in not only the growth in the number of home-based workers, but the changing blend of industries they represent, said Peter Mateyka, a Census Bureau analyst.
"As communication and information technologies advance, we are seeing that workers are increasingly able to perform work at home," Mateyka said in a census report this month. "These changes in work patterns have both economic and social implications."
That doesn't mean, however, that telecommuting is destined to become an option for every employee or employer.
"A lot of people overassume that telecommuting is the wave of the future," said Derek Scharton, a software engineer for a Bay Area financial services company, who does his homework in a bedroom that has been converted into an office at his northwest Fresno home.
"If you're looking for a job and you approach a company, especially a startup, about telecommuting, you have a very high probability of getting discarded."
Felicia Lopez of Clovis, who works as a product specialist/analyst for a Michigan-based division of a worldwide software and information company, said she believes that all but the largest employers are unlikely to buy into telecommuting as an option for workers.
"I don't see it becoming a booming trend," said Lopez, whose husband telecommutes for the same company. "Larger corporations may be more inclined to go with home-based workers, but my personal experience is that smaller companies may not be.
"They can't necessarily put the risk out there."
Not new, but changing
Working from home is nothing new. But the characteristics of the home-based worker have been changing over the past five decades, the Census Bureau reported.
For years, self-employed workers dominated the ranks of the home-based workers.
"In the 1960s, home-based workers were primarily self-employed farmers and professionals, including doctors and lawyers," according to a census report.
But the growth of larger farms over family farms and changes in market conditions caused the number of home-based workers to decline between 1960 and 1980.
Self-employed workers now make up slightly less than 50 percent of the home-based work force, while people who work for private companies and nonprofits have grown to nearly 45 percent.
In 2000, about 1.3 million people worked at home for companies and nonprofits. By 2010, that number ballooned to nearly 2.3 million.