Tech careers in Kentucky:

A future emerges after coal

A nonoperative coal wash sits tucked away in the mountainside in Justiceville, Kentucky, on Friday, September 29, 2017. (Photo by Brittany Greeson)

Kevin Douglas Grant

PIKEVILLE, Kentucky — As the coal economy in Eastern Kentucky continues to crumble, the race is on to create new jobs in emerging industries.

Local startups and corporate expansion are combining to bring national attention to communities like Pike County, which is still one of the state’s biggest coal producers but has lost about 80 percent of its coal jobs in the last five years. The belief that new technologies can jumpstart economic life in Appalachia is showing early promise while bumping up against the limits of local infrastructure, trained workforce and demand for product.

A public-private initiative called SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) has created 17 new positions working with partners like BitSource, which former coal miner Rusty Justice founded in 2014 to offer coding skills to others coming out of the declining industry.

“The idea of a hillbilly from the coal industry doing high-tech work is counterintuitive,” Justice said. “But we’re working deliberately and intentionally to change search results for ‘Appalachia.’”

A who’s who of tech and media celebrities have set their sights on Appalachia in recent months, including Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg who visited nearby Hazard, Kentucky, in September to meet students using personalized learning tools provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to write code for games, robots, drones and virtual reality apps.

We’re working to reframe the narrative that the people of the state hold about themselves.

Sam Ford

Future of Work in Kentucky Initiative

Author J.D. Vance, who wrote about his eastern Kentucky roots in the popular, if contentious, “Hillbilly Elegy,” recently joined forces with AOL co-founder Steve Case on a $150 million “Rise of the Rest” fund that could bring new capital into the area.

More quietly, MIT has been working in Pikeville on the Future of Work in Kentucky Initiative, created by MIT grad and Kentucky native Sam Ford. It’s a solutions-focused effort designed to help MIT learn from Kentucky and vice versa.

“We’re working to reframe the narrative that the people of the state hold about themselves,” Ford said. “You don’t want to design a future you don’t think you’ll be in.”

Ford, a former executive at Univision, said he doesn’t envision Pike County trying to replicate Silicon Valley.

“I think one Silicon Valley is more than enough,” he said.

But training locals to use tools like MIT’s App Inventor to build applications and grow confidence is a great step toward a sustainable tech culture, Ford said. It goes back to a mentality shift that he and partners on the Future of Work initiative are working to correct.

“You think you’re a coal miner rather than a skilled worker who works with technology, who is able to apply skill sets to other problems,” Ford continued. “Until the people of a place feel empowered to come up with solutions to their problems…People don’t want an idea foisted on them. If they have no agency, people are resistant.”

Ford said he likes Justice’s approach to training at BitSource, which seeks do avoid “training more people than he could hire.”

The remains of a strip mine are seen from a mountain top in Pike County, Ky., on Wednesday, September 27, 2017. (Photo by Brittany Greeson)

The remains of a strip mine are seen from a mountain top in Pike County, Kentucky, on Wednesday, September 27, 2017. (Photo by Brittany Greeson)

BitSource’s 13-person team includes a depth of experience in the coal industry, including former underground and surface miners, coal and surface analysts plus a former member of an undermine coal mine rescue team.

While BitSource has received positive reception in and around Pikeville, with nearly 1,000 candidates signing up for its first program in 2014 (10 were accepted), skills training programs that don’t lead to jobs tend to get far fewer takers, Ford said.

“If people don’t see that future, they don’t want to risk enrolling in a program for 9 months with no clear job in sight. Or listen to rumors that [a] mine may reopen,” Ford said. “Actually, they may be making the logical choice.”

As BitSource develops more clients seeking to “onshore” tech projects to U.S. companies, an organization called Teleworks USA is training Eastern Kentuckians to work from home, generally in customer service positions. But it’s limited to hiring where broadband internet connectivity is fast, still a rare thing in this part of the state.

“It’s a rapid way to get people employed in the digital economy,” said Teleworks director Michael Cornett. “We could do much more if service were more widespread instead of just in these pockets of really good internet which are just here and there.”

Teleworks has created about 1,000 jobs, according to data from SOAR. Before retraining workers, Teleworks asks that applicants print internet speed test results for their homes.

Meantime, new manufacturing opportunities are emerging on the horizon, too. California-based sustainable energy company EnerBlu announced last week that it will build a $372 million power battery production plant in Pikeville in the next 2-3 years. The company will start with a $40 million facility in Lexington, and plans to create 985 new jobs between the two locations within four years of operation.

In April, aluminum company Braidy Industries announced plans to build a $1.3 billion plant in South Shore, about two-and-a-half hours north of Pikeville, promising 550 jobs and high wages.

”This may truly be the most singularly transformative economic development decision that has ever been made in the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said Gov. Matt Bevin.

While eastern Kentuckians are all too accustomed to huge promises and proclamations — especially from out-of-towners — a path to the region’s economic future seems to be emerging. Much of the focus now is getting local workers ready to walk it.

“Crossing the Divide” reporting fellow Gabriel Sanchez contributed reporting to this story, which was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Read more Crossing the Divide reporting from Kentucky

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