California has the high-tech Silicon Valley as the home of digital innovation, but Iowa may soon have the Silicon Prairie. The seeds are being planted.
A crowd of 400 people in the west-central Iowa town of Jefferson attended the Sept. 7 opening of The Forge, which organizers say will bring high-demand, tech-oriented jobs to this area of rural Iowa. The Forge is a public-private partnership to help prepare the future workforce for the digital economy by providing local community college students with training on how to develop commercial software.
The September Forge event emphasized the importance of investing in rural renewal. It featured several high-profile guests, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents the Silicon Valley area in California. They say this first location of The Forge in rural Iowa is a model for the rest of the country. There is already a Forge location in Des Moines.
The Forge at Jefferson is a modern office facility located in a renovated building that had been abandoned in the town of 4,200 people. It gives hope to graduating high school students in the area that they can find high-tech jobs here instead of having to move out of state after finishing college.
Cultivating opportunities in Iowa
Khanna and others involved in the project have been working to connect this rural Iowa community to Silicon Valley tech companies to provide training for jobs typically found in big cities. The $1.8 million center in Jefferson was opened by Pillar Technology, which has an office in Des Moines and is owned by Accenture, a California-based firm.
Reynolds says Pillar Technology’s new Jefferson office “provides more than just a home for innovation. It’s a launchpad for careers, a hub for lifelong learning and a model for small towns across our state. We’re showing the world this is the place for innovation, for entrepreneurship, for inspiration.”
REBOOTING RURAL IOWA: Downtown Jefferson is now home of The Forge, a pilot program designed to build the skills of students in computer software development and digital tech.
The governor is hearing from leaders in other rural Iowa communities who want to have the next high-tech Forge.
Linc Kroeger, a Pillar executive, says the fast-track training will put graduates in line for good paying jobs — with little student debt — at either Pillar or other companies. The new office has space for 30 employees and 16 trainees.
Kroeger and Khanna believe the concentration of tech companies on the West Coast can help other areas. The Silicon Valley companies struggle as they compete for workers and the high costs to live and work in California.
“What we’re doing here in Jefferson is important,” Khanna says. “It matters because some of the kids who grow up here can live their dreams here.”
Working with the school district
It makes economic sense to encourage technology development in middle America, Kroeger says. It’s not only Pillar Technology and Accenture investing in this effort. Jefferson and the Greene County Community School District is investing $35.5 million in its school system, including building a career academy that will offer technology, advanced manufacturing, culinary and other training.
The opportunity for more local jobs, with bigger paychecks, helped persuade voters to approve a $21.5 million bond issue, rejected twice before it was approved in 2018.
Tech partners in the Jefferson Forge initiative have increased, with Facebook recently announcing it is providing digital marketing scholarships for DMACC students. In June Corteva Agriscience, parent company of Johnston-based Pioneer seed, announced it is providing $187,500 in tech scholarships for DMACC students. The first scholarship has been awarded to Safura Kahn of Glidden, Iowa.
About two dozen DMACC students have entered tech training courses. Kroeger says it may take a few years to determine if the effort with the Forge at Jefferson has been successful in providing local high-tech jobs for workers. However, he believes the demand is there and digital technology companies are interested.
Next generation returns home
Chris Deal, who grew up near Jefferson, Iowa, moved his wife and kids back to Jefferson in 2016 to help his brother Benji manage the family farm, Deal Orchards. Chris, a mechanical engineer who now works for a firm in Des Moines and telecommutes, helps manage the orchard on the side. He met Kroeger through his work and urged Kroeger to get Pillar to open an office in Jefferson. Thus, Kroeger and Deal teamed up three years ago to get The Forge idea going.
LOOKING AHEAD: Three years ago, Chris Deal (left) and Linc Kroeger began the quest to bring digital technology education and job opportunities to the Greene County community.
“The community is working to build on Pillar Technology’s tech foundation,” Deal says. “Other companies are showing interest in coming here and opening a shared workspace. But it’s not just about building The Forge or other businesses. It’s about keeping people here in Greene County. We are thinking bigger than just the four walls of this building — The Forge. Someone can live in Greene County today and work for a company anywhere in the world, and at the same time can raise their families here and give their kids opportunities that are as good as anywhere in the world.”
Scholarships for computer training
Corteva Agriscience, together with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) has awarded the first of 25 scholarships created as part of a pilot program to train rural-based students in high-value, high-demand software development and technology skills. Corteva has contributed $187,500 to fund 25 scholarships of up to $7,500 each.
Safura Kahn of Glidden in west-central Iowa is the first scholarship recipient. She will participate in a 10-class computer science program offered through DMACC. Upon completion of the classes, Kahn will be eligible for a four-month training program at The Forge, a high-tech software development facility in downtown Jefferson, Iowa. The Forge was opened on Sept. 7 by Accenture, a national digital technology firm based in California’s Silicon Valley.
“Corteva Agriscience doesn’t just serve the community, it is part of the community,” says Debra King, chief information officer for Corteva. “This scholarship aligns with our vision to improve the lives of generations to come by investing in rural renewal and in the diverse and talented students who will solve the challenges of the future. When students graduate from The Forge, they will be ready for a cutting-edge software development career and collectively can contribute back to the growth of their local communities.”
“This is just the beginning,” says James Alcombright, executive information technology leader at Corteva Agriscience. “We have $180,000 in rural scholarship funding remaining to help students build the skills and competencies necessary to succeed today and contribute in a digital world—and in particular the digital agriculture field.”
Another round of scholarship applications will be accepted until Nov. 1 for the spring semester.