Monday, February 15, 2016

Teaching Central Appalachian coal miners how to write computer code could help revitalize region

In Central Appalachia, where communities have been hit hard by the loss of coal jobs, the move to teach former coal miners computer coding could be the start of a trend that could help revitalize the region, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg News. Rusty Justice, who co-founded a coding business in Pikeville, Ky. (Best Places map), told Loh, “We’ve got a lot of high-skilled hillbillies here. We want to prove we can run a tech business from the hills of Eastern Kentucky.”

In 1996 local producers in Pike County "dug up 35.6 million tons, a state record," Loh writes. "The coal market began to collapse in 2011 as a global glut of the fuel swelled. Prices are down 75 percent since then, and nowhere has that hit harder than in Appalachia. Central Appalachia coal has dropped 70 percent from a record $143.25 in July 2008 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Pike County’s output dropped to 6.9 million tons in 2015, and its mining jobs fell to 1,285, about a third as many as four years earlier."

During coal's downturn, Justice, a fourth-generation Pikeville native, saw his excavation and engineering company lose 70 percent of its customer base, "including big miners like James River Coal Co., Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Arch Coal Inc. that all filed for bankruptcy protection," Loh writes. That led to the idea to switch to coding, Loh writes. Justice told him, “We didn’t think that was that big of a jump. Daggone, these are high-tech workers that just get dirty.” (Bloomberg graphic)
Loh writes, "Of course, there’s a big difference between Big Sandy Valley and Silicon Valley. For one, Kentucky has the country’s slowest peak Internet connection speeds, according to a survey by Akamai Technologies Inc. And in Appalachia, where coal has long dominated and communities are separated by miles of mountains, few governments ever banded together to attract the likes of Apple and Google. And few people grew up dreaming of working for either."

"That’s slowly changing," Loh writes. The region is seeking ways to create entrepreneurial opportunities. One of those ways is with coding. Last year 10 former coal mine workers spent five months learning to code and mastering languages including HTML, JavaScript and PHP. A U.S. Department of Labor grant "covered the coders’ wages during training and similar funding will cover a share of their salaries through winter... Justice said he expects to achieve profitability in 2016. They’ve already finished nine projects, including the website for Eastern Kentucky’s career center network." Justice told Loh, “The coal industry is dying here. But we could be the grassroots of something truly special.”

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