Does Iowa Hold the Key to America’s Automation Problem?

The success of tech training programs like the one in rural Jefferson, Iowa, could hold huge cultural ramifications for the U.S.

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Why you should care

Because automation will lead to hundreds of thousands of lost jobs in the coming decade.

Walking off the plane at the Des Moines airport, travelers are greeted by electronic billboards advertising Iowa’s capital as “America’s Cultivation Corridor” for “innovators, entrepreneurs, foodies” — and futuristic toilets with automated seat covers.

It’s an unexpected vibe, and one Iowa is doubling down on, even in rural areas. Look to Jefferson, an hour’s drive from Des Moines. In September, technology consulting firm Pillar opened its first rural studio — it calls such mini-campuses Forges — for tech job training in the city of less than 5,000 people.

If all goes to plan, the Forge will provide a pipeline from high school or community college to at least 30 high-paying jobs with Pillar and its parent company, Accenture, and potentially dozens more with Silicon Valley tech firms. Blue-chippers from App Academy to Microsoft and Facebook have funded scholarships for the training program nearly 2,000 miles from their headquarters.

The project is about making sure we bring 21st-century jobs to rural America.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

The Jefferson project is one possible answer to questions about the threat of automation to jobs that many Democratic presidential candidates are grappling with. In Utah, for example, the governor’s office and business groups are aiming at creating 25,000 new jobs in rural areas. Meanwhile, a number of companies focused on bringing Silicon Valley to Middle America have sprung up, such as venture firm Village Capital.

Job loss and automation concerns have moved to the forefront of debates over the economy, partly because of the rise of Venture for America entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has made it a core issue behind his call for universal basic income, and the echoing of those fears by candidates including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.

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Joe Biden discusses automation concerns in Des Moines.

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“The project is about making sure we bring 21st-century jobs to rural America,” says Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, whose California district includes Silicon Valley and who helped broker the partnerships. “This is starting to tell the story about what can exist in smaller communities,” says Chris Deal, a Jefferson native who helped pitch Accenture on picking the old-school manufacturing city for its pilot location.

Deal’s question is that of countless similar rural communities across the country: “Can we go from a single company to creating a hub of technology … and really change this from a company to a movement?” It’s a question piquing increased attention from the campaign trail on what answers may lie in overlooked places like Jefferson. The importance of the Jefferson initiative is accentuated by the fact that it’s happening in the first caucus state during a presidential election year.

“I love programs like that,” says Yang. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, also running for president, says they must be part of the solution: “We have to recognize that there are folks in this country who don’t even have a college degree, not a two-year degree, and we need to say: ‘What are we doing for them?’”

The problem looms so large in the contenders’ minds that frontrunner Biden dissected it for several minutes after an Iowa town hall. He worries about how Amazon has displaced traditional work in rural and urban places alike. His eulogizing extends to truck drivers, bank tellers, even journalists.

To Biden, the root of the problem is a change in “the ethic of corporate America” that focuses on short-term gains and benefiting stockholders, not on adding jobs or building the middle class. “These high-tech alternatives are really worth the investment. But the companies have to get engaged,” he adds.

Businesses benefit when they invest in nontraditional partnerships like these, says Linc Kroeger, who works for Pillar. Not only are they able to identify where competitors aren’t looking — think of a baseball team that scouts prospects in remote Caribbean islands — but they’re also able to train workers to more closely fit their needs. For Accenture, that means training them to be “multilingual” (i.e., able to work in multiple coding languages).

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Andrew Yang marches in Des Moines.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

Because the training is tailored to a specific job, people are more likely to be hired in the end, but Yang cautions that programs like this can suffer from success rates as low as 15 percent. And the effectiveness of programs like these could hold cultural ramifications for the country. Many rural Americans must choose whether to stay in their community or move in search of a meaningful career path. But as broadband internet speeds become more accessible and more work can be done remotely, that choice could become unnecessary — allowing people to live in a place like Jefferson and work for an Apple, a Microsoft or a Facebook.

“There is talent here. But so many times, the opportunity isn’t here,” says Deal, who grew up nearby on his family’s century-old apple orchard. He recently moved back after his engineering firm created a flexible work-from-home program.

As politicians decry partisanship, this is a rare area of agreement. Khanna notes it’s just about the only thing that could unite himself, a California liberal, and a conservative like Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who also attended the Jefferson Forge opening. “That’s how we’re going to concretely stitch this country together,” Khanna says.

But the true test will be if such programs sustain the interest of politicians and business leaders long enough to make a difference. Four years from now, the presidential shuffle will begin again, and the same would-be White House types will descend on Iowa, even if the faces have changed. If programs like Jefferson’s wither on the vine, the next presidential crop may be asked why.  

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