Storm Lake could be hub for tech education, jobs



US Rep. Ro Khanna of California believes that healing the nation’s divisions starts with equal opportunity in the digital age for Rural America.

Khanna represents Silicon Valley. So what is he doing helping Pillar Technologies of California launch a digital “forge” in Jefferson in conjunction with Iowa Central Community College? It opens in August, with jobs paying $75,000 per year.

“You can’t put the fabric of the country back together when some places prosper and others don’t,” said Khanna, who was reared in Bucks County, Pa.

Silicon Valley is in constant search of talent. Khanna says that Iowa is in a perfect position to leverage it because of its strong education system, low cost of living and central location. Few states have the same network of K-12 schools, community colleges, state universities and private colleges, Khanna said, that can provide the skills necessary to certify a student is ready to launch a digital career.

He has been working in West Virginia, Kentucky and other rural locales trying to help education systems gear up for a digital future, partnering companies like Cisco to help the University of West Virginia build a computer engineering center in Beckley, a rural community. The pathway to the future does not lead through a coal mine but down a digital highway that has yet to be paved in some places. In Iowa, the foundation is laid through the education system, the state’s reputed work ethic and a decent broadband network that is being fortified.

Iowa can be something more than a home to computer server warehouses staffed by a few employees. Khanna says Silicon Valley needs help from people with two-year tech degrees.

“If we can’t do it in rural Iowa, we’ve got no shot,” he said. “I think Iowa is ready to succeed.”

Khanna wants to see about four digital jobs hubs built out in Iowa in the near term to serve as a national model.

“There is no reason Storm Lake couldn’t be one of them,” Khanna said in a Monday interview.

He is the child of immigrants, and he knows their desire to succeed in America.

Storm Lake is hooked up already, with Iowa Central literally attached to Storm Lake High School. The Storm Lake Charter School offers the perfect vehicle to get tech degrees to students who want a good job in digital technology. Khanna says he believes he can find the job creators, if Iowa provides the educational infrastructure. In Storm Lake, we’re 90% of the way there — especially when Buena Vista University is factored in with its strong computer science and business background.

It helped pass a school bond issue in Jefferson. The Pillar Tech program has created a new and expanded partnership with Iowa Central. Khanna wants to see more such “forges” rolled out in places where they are assured to succeed.

“Most people want to live in the community where they grew up in with their families,” Khanna said. “Now, they no longer have to move.”

And if they do want to move, their prospects improve if they are well-grounded by their Iowa education. Jobs are available from Boston to San Jose for those with skills. Or, maybe even in Iowa.

“It could be the model for the nation. That’s my hope. That’s why I ran that ad last week in The Storm Lake Times. I want to get this into the discussion during the Iowa caucuses. We want people to be talking about a real future for rural places, for the Democratic Party to offer a constructive way to reconnect.”

Khanna says he supports Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but he says Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, is well-versed in trying to move out of the past of old-line manufacturing and into a more prosperous future. He said Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana “really gets it.” He said he spoke with Bullock for more than an hour about the concept.

Storm Lake should seize the opportunity. Khanna is reaching out, asking for Iowans to get involved in building a new rural economy. The jobs are showing up in Jefferson. Maybe we could attract them to Storm Lake. Our natural disposition is to be suspicious of outsiders offering a better way, and that this could never work in Iowa. As Khanna said, there is no reason it couldn’t. The reason that the long-anticipated rural digital revolution has not occurred is because nobody has tried. Khanna is trying. What do we have to lose, since the only cost to us is investing in education? Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is interested. We should not be on the outside looking in.