THE FUTURE IS NOW
By ANDREW MCGINN
Imagine earning $75,000 a year just two to three years after high school, and not owing a shred of debt to get there.
Plus, you could brag to colleagues in Silicon Valley, Columbus, Ann Arbor or even Des Moines about your nonexistent commute, because you’d be working in downtown Jefferson.
That’s the offer on the table from Pillar Technology, a company that develops software for a mind-boggling variety of needs.
Pillar wants to expand into rural Iowa.
More specifically, the century-old former IOOF building on East State Street right next to the Sierra Community Theatre.
All they require is a community college to partner with — and that requires a Yes vote April 3 from local residents on the Greene County Community School District’s $21.48 million bond referendum.
If approved, the bond will fund construction of a new Greene County High School on land just west of AAI that will be connected to a regional career academy equipped and staffed by Iowa Central Community College.
No one will be watching the April 3 vote more intently than Linc Kroeger, vanguard of Pillar’s Future Ready Iowa program, an initiative that aims to rebuild rural communities by not pillaging its young talent.
“There are many rural communities that would love this,” Kroeger said Monday.
A product himself of small-town Iowa, the Independence native returned home to the Hawkeye State three years ago to open a Des Moines office for Pillar and to try building a talent pipeline for the company in rural Iowa.
“Roughly half of these human beings came from rural Iowa,” Kroeger said, looking around his office at 1420 Locust St. in downtown Des Moines. “The talent is there. The opportunity isn’t.”
The proposed career academy in Greene County would enable Pillar to work with Iowa Central to develop a computer software curriculum for local high schoolers.
Once students complete high school, Kroeger said, they could apply to the Pillar Academy, a training program that could be completed in as little as six months or as long as 18 months.
“You graduate when you demonstrate you can do the job,” he said.
Graduates wouldn’t receive the liberal arts courses that a traditional college or university offers, but they would become Pillar employees with an annual starting salary between $55,000 and $60,000, and an education better than a computer science degree, Kroeger said.
As many as 30 jobs would be created locally.
Within three years, that annual salary could increase to as much as $75,000, Kroeger said.
Pillar is interested in renovating the double-storefront IOOF building in the 200 block of East State Street for what would be the company’s first incursion into rural Iowa.
“When you grow up in a rural town,” Kroeger explained, “you know when you graduate you typically have to move and leave.”
“Everything we do,” he added, “could be done in a rural community.”
And what they do is decidedly cool.
Pillar has developed software for autonomous (that is, driverless) vehicles capable of identifying and avoiding objects and pedestrians, and stopping at stoplights.
Work in precision agriculture enables tractors to tell farmers the precise angle that seeds should be planted for an optimal yield.
Software created for emergency rooms can assess chest pain and immediately differentiate between indigestion or a heart attack, thus minimizing wrongful admissions.
A publicly traded utility company with enormous databases of equipment information looked to Pillar for help, and within two weeks was given an app that allows their field workers to point a smartphone camera at a piece of equipment — the augmented reality app displays relevant data overlaid on the image.
Established in 1996, Pillar currently has more than 300 employees and four working spaces — each one called a Forge — located in Palo Alto, Calif., Des Moines and the university towns of Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Mich.
Pillar is based in Columbus, a city of more than 860,000 and home to Ohio State University.
Jefferson would be the site of Pillar’s fifth Forge, a place where new ideas are hammered out.
Calling its software developers “software artisans,” Pillar would also bring an entirely new kind of workplace culture to Greene County, one where paternity leave is just as normal as maternity leave.
The company has been ranked by Crain’s Detroit Business among the “cool places to work.”
A current job posting for a traveling software artisan based out of the Des Moines Forge boasts, among the perks of the job, “hella frequent flyer miles and hotel points.”
Pillar’s 65 Des Moines employees work in a renovated historic building located along the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
Future employees at a Jefferson Forge wouldn’t exactly be able to stroll through a sculpture park on lunch breaks — but they would, however, have a Dollar General just across the street.
And in coding, Mountain Dew can be every bit as inspirational as artwork.
“This would be a catalyst for the entire community,” said Chris Deal, a 2003 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School.
The idea for a regional career academy in Greene County originated with Deal — so, too, did the idea of a Forge in Jefferson.
“It was an opportunity that came out of the blue,” he confessed.
An engineering designer, Deal helped design Pillar’s office space in Des Moines that opened in April 2016.
Pillar allows nonprofit groups to use its office space for events, and it was at one such event that Deal and Kroeger began to talk.
By chance, Pillar was ramping up plans to move into rural Iowa.
“I asked him, ‘Why not Jefferson?’ ” Deal said.
Kroeger responded that it probably wouldn’t work, as Jefferson has no community college presence.
“That was a couple of weeks after our first conversation with Iowa Central,” Deal said. “It’s like it was written in the stars.”
Both men say the move into rural Iowa could give Pillar a competitive advantage for recruiting talent, one that couples a high-paying job with a family-friendly environment.
Need to dash off to the elementary school to attend your kid’s program? No problem, Kroeger said, as traffic is nonexistent.
Deal said the move to rural Iowa could also give Pillar a marketing advantage in business.
By committing to rural Iowa, Pillar is showing that its core values are in line with any number of corporations, from John Deere to Casey’s General Stores — all of which have software needs.
Tech companies have already repopulated and rejuvenated metropolitan downtowns across the country once decimated by suburbia.
Might rural America be the final frontier for tech companies?
“I would like to be a part of creating that movement,” Kroeger said.
Admittedly, a Forge in Jefferson would be an experiment, he said.
“I don’t know why it wouldn’t work,” he said.
It would give students in high school an opportunity to explore a career path even before they get to college, potentially saving them from having to change majors and rack up debt.
Graduates of the Pillar Academy would be free to transfer to any of Pillar’s other Forges, he said, giving them a chance to experience a taste of life elsewhere.
Right now, only one thing is for certain: Pillar’s future in Jefferson likely hinges on the April 3 bond vote.
Absentee voting began Monday.
“Iowa Central is a critical partner in this,” Deal said. “The partnerships with multiple schools and Iowa Central is critical for them to come to Greene County.”
The costs associated with acquiring the site of a proposed new high school aren’t part of the bond, the school district announced last week.
If approved by 60 percent of voters, the plan will cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an estimated $11.42 per month in new taxes after rollbacks and homestead credits.
Owners of farmland will pay about $2.78 per acre in new taxes, according to district estimates.
The new high school would be ready for the 2020-21 school year.
When asked what happens to Pillar’s plans for Jefferson should local voters reject the bond issue, Kroeger said they would have to reassess their plans.
Pillar could potentially partner with DMACC in Carroll, he said, and still have the Forge in Jefferson. But if that happened, he said, it would likely make more sense to have the Forge physically located in Carroll as well.
Essentially, Kroeger said, if the bond fails “then they’re saying they don’t want this in the community.”
The city of Jefferson stands ready to welcome Pillar with open arms and $150,000 in TIF money to rehab the IOOF building, according to Nick Sorensen, city building inspector.
The city also has applied for a community catalyst grant for $100,000 through the Iowa Economic Development Authority to assist Pillar renovate the building, once the meeting site of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
It could be as much as $1.7 million to renovate the two storefronts, one of which is occupied by Elite Power Tumbling, he said.
“It’s amazing,” Sorensen said. “It’s jobs we haven’t tapped into yet.
“It’s where the entire world is going. To get some of those jobs in Greene County is excellent.”