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Teaching Coal Miners How to Code: Tech Training Gains Momentum

Miner Scott Tiller crawls through an underground coal mine May 11, 2016, in Welch, W.Va. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A Silicon Valley congressman said the tech industry needs to be more sensitive in transitioning workers in industries such as coal to high-tech jobs.

Tech experts and political leaders met Monday in Paintsville, Ky., to discuss Rep. Hal Rogers’ (R-Ky.) “Silicon Holler” project to groom a high-tech workforce in Appalachia. Representatives from Apple, Amazon and Google were at the Big Sandy Community and Technical College event, along with Gov. Matt Bevin.

“Silicon Valley is the famed epicenter of innovation and technology in America, so there is no one better situated to help us advance our mission to build Silicon Holler than those who work in the trenches every day,” Rogers said in a statement afterward. “We have the best workforce in the country, so we want to find opportunities in Silicon Valley that we can build upon right here in Eastern Kentucky.”

The TechHire East Kentucky program attracted 1,600 applicants to its first class teaching coal miners and others from the industrial sector how to code. Interapt CEO Ankur Gopal said the first class of 30 was so successful they’ll be doing another round, accepting applications beginning in spring.

“We’re teaching next generation business and software skills in Eastern Kentucky, and our graduations have the foundations to start a successful software career at Interapt,” Gopal said. “I am very proud of the dedication our team has exemplified in meeting the rigor of the training program. By showing the capabilities of our graduates to learn next generation skills on a national stage, we hope to recruit more opportunities by creating new partnerships with Silicon Valley.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he was “impressed with the energy and people there are very clear-headed.”

“I mean, the folks in Paintsville will tell you they love coal,” he told MSNBC this morning. “They’re proud of their coal jobs but they want to diversify.”

“One person I talked to said his father was laid off three times from coal in a year. So what they’re doing is learning IOS software for Apple, Google software for Android, 45 of them have jobs, $40,000 a year. And there’s energy and my promise to them was we’ve got to tell the positive story because they’re actually making a real effort and they get the need to diversify.”

The Silicon Valley congressman said there needs to be an enduring commitment from employers to hire miners at the end of tech training.

“And the second thing is teaching the right skills. The community colleges there before this program were teaching folks how to replace hardware. That had no prospect. They came in and they learned swift programming on Apple, how to develop apps; that actually had a promise,” Khanna said.

His message to President Trump: “For someone who made his whole reputation on ‘The Apprentice,’ I would hope he would fund apprenticeship programs around this country. I mean, tech apprenticeship programs would make a huge difference.”

Khanna said Congress “could use more time out there to see what skills are actually relevant for the jobs of the future.”

“So we have all these work training programs and I’m not convinced that they’re actually training people for the jobs that are going to be there,” he added. “But, frankly, Silicon Valley could use a dose of humility as well. We need to understand what transition people are going through from an industrial to a digital economy and how we’re going to participate in helping this country. So I think it’s both ways that need to be better connected.”