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Silicon Valley looks to rural America for new generation of tech workers


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“Iowa is one of the best exporters of talent in the country,” said Independence native Linc Kroeger, an executive with Pillar Technology trying to bring tech jobs to rural Iowa.
Brian Powers, bpowers@dmreg.com

Silicon Valley leaders are joining Pillar Technology’s initiative to help provide intensive training for students in Jefferson, Iowa, a town of 4,200. Participants could land tech jobs paying $65,000.

Microsoft’s Kevin Scott understands the limits teenagers face growing up in a place where cows outnumber people and opportunities for tech careers are limited.

Many of the textile, tobacco and furniture jobs in rural Virginia were disappearing by the time Scott was growing up in the 1970s.

Already passionate about computers and programming, he was one of two local kids picked to attend a science and technology high school.

He had to move away from his family and his hometown to pursue what he loved.

The Microsoft chief technology officer and nearly a dozen Silicon Valley executives want to change that.

They’re joining a business and small-town partnership to bring high-paying, high-tech jobs to rural Iowa. If successful, leaders want to replicate the initiative in other rural towns and states, creating opportunities in regions being emptied of jobs and people.

Scott, LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue, venture capitalist Greg Sands, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse and others spent Saturday in rural Iowa learning about Pillar Technology’s initiative to provide intensive training for students who could then land high-paying tech jobs at the company’s office in Jefferson, a town of 4,200.

“I hope that efforts like this can bring opportunities to rural communities throughout the country so that the talented, young engineers of the future can choose to stay,” Scott said before coming to Iowa.

Tapping new employment sources is important to the tech industry as it struggles with intense competition for high-priced talent and space on the East and West coasts.

“Real estate is very expensive and unemployment is very low. The competition for tech workers … is quite fierce,” said Sands, founder of Costanoa Ventures, a San Francisco early-stage venture capital fund.

Startup founders and CEOs have found “an opportunity and want to grow but simply can’t find the people to do the job — at nearly any price,” said Sands, a Minneapolis native.

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Iowa and other flyover states can help fill that workforce need. 

Quizlet, a San Francisco online quiz company that Costanoa invested in, recently opened a second office in Denver to find talented workers. It plans to create 300 jobs over eight years in the Colorado city.

“There’s talent absolutely everywhere. And the most important thing for us as an economy, a country and society is … to have ladders of opportunity for people everywhere,” Sands said.

Bring prosperity back to rural America

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents California’s Silicon Valley, says American companies send about 200,000 tech jobs to other countries.

He believes Pillar Technology, a national software consultant with a Des Moines office, offers a model that can help keep U.S. jobs from moving offshore.

“If Silicon Valley partners with Jefferson, I believe we can replicate this — not just throughout Iowa, but throughout the country,” Khanna said.

“I believe we can bring prosperity back to these communities,” he said. “It’s the only way we can knit the fabric of the country back together.”

Pillar Technology is spending $1.7 million to renovate a historic building in downtown Jefferson where it will open an office and hire up to 30 workers. Jefferson, in turn, will build a new career academy offering a student software development training program that can feed the company’s workforce pipeline.

The payoff for high school students is a chance at Pillar jobs that start at $65,000 and will grow to $75,000 annually by the time they’ve finished the company’s training.

It’s twice the average pay rural Iowans receive.

Pillar Technology’s Linc Kroeger believes other companies can locate offices in rural towns and in industries beyond technology — accounting, human resources and other business services.

“Very few people talk about the demise of rural America,” said Kroeger, who grew up in Independence, Iowa, but didn’t return professionally until Pillar opened an office in Des Moines two years ago.

“I want there to be real career options in Jefferson, Independence and other rural communities,” he said. “I don’t think rural America thinks that’s possible today and they leave.”

Silicon Valley support can make a difference

Meeting with about a dozen Jefferson students last week in Des Moines, Kroeger said they could begin earning good money in their early 20s.

Students can take some high school tech classes at Jefferson’s new career academy, a year of community college and six months or more in Pillar Technology’s own training academy.

They can then apply to become Pillar employees, earning about $65,000 a year while they continue training in an apprenticeship program for up to 24 months. Young workers can earn $75,000 or more by the time they end their apprenticeships, Kroeger said.

By the time many of their peers will graduate college, Pillar “software artisans” will have earned at least $130,000, have two years of experience and little or no debt.

“Look how far ahead you’ll be,” Kroeger told the students.

The company, recently purchased by Accenture, calls the effort R3 — Revive. Rebuild. Restore. Kroeger is leading Pillar’s efforts.

Coastal tech companies partnering with Pillar and Jefferson will help drive rural tech development, Kroeger said.

Allen said LinkedIn hopes to provide deep data about Iowa tech jobs, the skills needed and education available while identifying what gaps exist. “We’ve been able to look at the jobs that are available across the country… and it reveals a lot about the skills that are needed to make jobs happen,” he said.

The App Academy, which trains tech students in San Francisco, New York and other major tech hubs, is starting a push to provide online coding education. It will offer one Jefferson student free tuition.

Beyond HQ, a Costanoa Ventures portfolio company, will look at Iowa for a new tech office for expanding businesses.

And The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose will work with Jefferson teachers on engaging students, beginning in elementary school, to solve real-world engineering and technology challenges.

“They’re all helping fill a gap,” Kroeger said. “We’re looking at how you turn around rural America. … This is a spectrum of supporters, who can really make a change and a difference.”

Finding the best, wherever they live

Ben Milne, CEO of Des Moines startup Dwolla, said big ideas are worth pursuing, especially when they carry the possibility of improving tech jobs — and tech infrastructure — in rural Iowa.

“There’s no doubt we see a divide in technical jobs based on where you live geographically, even in Iowa,” Milne said. “Projects like this can help bridge that gap.”

Jefferson’s local telecommunications company has invested in high-speed internet and is adding measures to ensure uninterrupted service for Pillar and other companies.

It will help generations of kids in Jefferson and other rural communities that make the commitment, Milne said. “It’s important for kids growing up to have access to knowledge and today it’s the internet,” he said.

Any gains in tech jobs can help reduce Iowa’s loss of college STEM graduates, which Milne estimates was close to 80 percent last year.

“If this project could move that number by 5 or 10 percent, think of all the jobs it could create in Iowa … or the people who could accelerate or create companies here,” Milne said.

“Anytime you try to do something provocative, you hope it’s going to work. You’re optimistic it’s going to work. You know it’s going to be impactful if it works and that makes it worth doing it,” Milne said.

Sands, Costanoa Ventures’ founder, said he thinks major tech companies can find homes in or near U.S. university cities.

“You have a flow of people and jobs that can keep them there,” Sands said. “That can absolutely be done.”

Building them in small towns will be tougher. “I don’t know how many towns there are of 4,000 that will be able to pull off what (Pillar’s) Linc (Kroeger) is pulling off,” he said.

Sands is willing to help Kroeger try.

He plans to hold a “Shark Tank”-like competition when the Jefferson Forge, the name Pillar gives its offices, opens next summer. He’ll invest at least $50,000 in the best Iowa entrepreneur.

“One can create extraordinary companies anywhere,” Sands said. “We want to go find the best people, the best talent, the best founders and build the best companies.”

Finding value in small towns

Mechanical engineer Chris Deal says support by Silicon Valley executives for his hometown’s effort to build tech jobs validates years of community improvement efforts.

“It’s exciting seeing this vision turn into reality — to gain traction beyond Jefferson and Iowa,” said Deal, who chose to move back to his hometown after living in larger Iowa cities.

“It’s audacious, what Jefferson is trying to do,” he said. “It’s really great that there are people who want to help out.”

Tech companies and executives are lining up to lend a hand.

The Scott Foundation, for example, is providing $25,000 in student scholarships.

And Ripple’s Garlinghouse is equipping Jefferson’s computer lab.

Deal said the work really is just the beginning. 

Jefferson residents approved a $21.5 million bond issue that will help build a $35.5 million high school, gym, auditorium and career academy.

The community also is looking to redevelop a three-block area, anchored by a project that will transform an old middle school building into apartments with an indoor aquatic center and splash pad, walking paths and expanded day care.

Small towns need amenities that young, talented workers want, leaders say.

Kroeger said small-town living comes with amenities that are better than those in big cities: affordable homes, safety and the opportunity for parents to walk home for lunch with their kids.

“People can have deep relationships” in small towns, he said.

And Jefferson residents still have one- or two-hour access to Broadway shows, concerts and shopping in Des Moines or Omaha. “And there’s always Amazon,” Kroeger said.

Silicon Valley in Iowa

Here’s a quick look at some of the tech leader partnering with Pillar Technology and Jefferson.

Allen Blue

Blue co-founded LinkedIn, a career-focused social networking site that launched in 2003 and has about 560 million members. Microsoft purchased LinkedIn in 2011.

Kevin Scott

Scott is the chief technology officer at Microsoft.  Before that, he was senior vice president of engineering and operations at LinkedIn.

Greg Sands

Sands founded and is managing partner of Costanoa Ventures, a San Francisco early-stage venture fund.

Brad Garlinghouse

Garlinghouse is the CEO of Ripple, a large cryptocurrency company that’s used to send money globally.

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