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October 12, 2018

JEFFERSON, Iowa — This north-central Iowa town of about 4,200 people faces many of the problems other rural communities face: shrinking population, deteriorating downtowns, aging homes and consolidating schools.

But a unique agreement with a Des Moines technology consultant could change its future — and possibly provide a model for revitalizing other rural Iowa communities.

Pillar Technology plans to open a $1.7 million office in Jefferson and hire up to 30 workers. Jefferson, in turn, will build a new career academy that begins an intensive student software development training program that feeds the company’s workforce pipeline.

The payoff for high school students is a chance at Pillar jobs that pay $75,000 per year by the time they’re in their early twenties. It’s twice the average pay rural Iowans receive, the Des Moines Register reported.

“Growing up in rural Iowa, there’s this conveyor belt that no one talks about. When people graduate from college, they leave forever and never come back,” said Linc Kroeger, who grew up in Iowa and oversees Ohio-based Pillar Technology’s new business development in Iowa and surrounding states.

Pillar Technology’s ambitious goal is to slow — or possibly stop — that conveyor belt.

Kroeger hopes the model the company is developing with Jefferson can be expanded into two dozen rural towns. It’s an approach he believes accounting, human resources and other business services companies could duplicate.

The tide Kroeger and Pillar is trying to stop, though, is massive.

While Greene County’s jobs have grown in recent years, thanks mostly to construction of a new casino, when taken together, small and mid-sized Iowa cities — from Creston to Mason City and Fort Dodge — have not recovered the jobs lost in the 2008 recession, said David Swenson, an Iowa State University economist.

Low unemployment rates in rural areas reflect a shrinking labor force rather than signaling strong economies, Swenson said. The unemployment rate in Greene County sat at 2 percent in August, below the state’s 2.5 percent, the second-lowest in the nation. But the county’s population has dropped close to 4 percent since 2010, census data shows.

Rural towns need to look at diversifying local economies beyond manufacturing and agriculture to grow, Swenson said. The Jefferson proposal could be the right formula.

“It’s a great example of innovation and developing new opportunities in rural areas that are linked to the growing parts — not the dying parts — of the U.S. economy,” he said.

Chris Deal, a mechanical engineer from Jefferson who met Kroeger through work and urged him to expand in his hometown, said he believes the Pillar model “can work in other communities.”

And it can transform them: “If you take $55,000 to $75,000 in a rural community and do that 25, 30 times over, that’s a game-changer,” he said.

Quiet and careful, 16-year-old Mitchell Stevens uses his free time to learn coding languages that can make computer screens dance. But Stevens also loves music, and spent part of the summer traveling in Europe playing the french horn this summer. He’s part of teacher Jeff Whylie’s “nerd herd,” a growing group of students finding joy in computer science.

Whylie has added computer programming for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders this year. The deal with Pillar piques their interest, he said.

“When I tell them how much they could make, their eyes just get real big,” Whylie said.

Stevens, a junior, said a career programming computers would be “something I would love to do.” And his father, Chad Stevens, likes the idea that his son would have little debt when he finishes training.

“It should appeal to everybody,” said Chad Stevens.

“If you can find a good-paying job, and didn’t have to spend $80,000 to $100,000 going to college to get it, that’s a plus,” said the construction contractor.

Chad Stevens doubts teenagers really understand how much money they could earn. But it hits home in a rural area where wages are closer to $9 or $10 an hour than $35.

“Nobody buys a new home or builds a new home at $9 an hour,” said the builder, whose son spends summers helping him replace roofs, windows and make other home repairs.

And with four children, Chad Stevens likes the idea, too, of keeping them close to home.

“It would be nice to not drive all over the country at 70 to see my grandkids,” he said.

The opportunity for big-city jobs — and big-city paychecks — helped sell Jefferson residents on a $21.5 million bond issue, rejected twice before it passed in April, leaders said.

Combined with about $14 million from the school district and other groups, Jefferson will invest about $35.5 million in a new high school, gym, auditorium and career academy.

And the new high school will enable Greene County School District to shift students from a 100-year-old middle school that leaders hope to turn into much needed apartments.

Kroeger said he thinks residents rejected the earlier bond issues because felt like they were educating students, only to export them to other cities.

Now students can “see they can have professional technology careers and stay in Jefferson. ... They never imagined that future there,” said the 50-year-old, who left Iowa after high school and didn’t return until Pillar opened two years ago.

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