Innovation

How 'Silicon Holler' is bringing tech skills to coal miners

In eastern Kentucky, a skills-based program is retraining the workforce for jobs in tech. Here are seven video interviews with the leaders in politics and technology who helped make this happen.

In September 2016, a tech startup called Interapt in Louisville, KY, launched an intensive training program in eastern Kentucky, with the aim of teaching—and paying—people to learn skills in coding and app development. Interapt received more than 800 applicants and selected 35 for the program to prepare them for jobs in tech, in hopes of grooming them for future jobs at the company.

On Monday, at an event called "Transforming IT Workforce Training in Eastern Kentucky" at the Big Sandy Community and Technical College, Interapt announced that it would be renewing the program for a second year. The gathering, hosted by Congressman Hal Rogers, Congressman Ro Khanna and Governor Matt Bevin, was held in Paintsville, KY—a town of 5,300 in the heart of Appalachia.

At Monday's event, Kentucky politicians, tech leaders, and students gathered to talk about the success of the program, and why it is vital to the success of an economically depressed region.

TechRepublic spoke to six leaders at the event, including politicians and leaders in education, business, and economic development, for insight into the program and why it is critical to eastern Kentucky. Here are the interviews:

1. Megan Smith, Third US Chief Technology Officer

There are more than 600,000 open jobs in technology across the US, said Smith, and the White House started TechHire in 2016 to begin to fill them. These jobs, she said, pay more than the average American salary. Similar initiatives in St. Louis, Louisville, and Delaware provided an "ecosystem to accelerate people into the tech workforce," said Smith, and catalyzed TechHire, which consists of bootcamps and training programs to help Americans learn tech skills.

Currently, there are more than 70 communities around the country—from Albuquerque to Anchorage—involved in the program. The success of this program in eastern Kentucky, said Smith, is a great example of TechHire's power to change a community.

Smith also talked about the importance of bringing low-cost broadband access to communities across the country. "Every time someone gets one of these jobs, they add five more jobs to the region," she said. "It brings money to the region, and that money flows out." It's about helping the community feel confident that they can learn these skills, she said.

2. Jared Arnett, Executive Director, Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR)

Arnett, head of a nonprofit in eastern Kentucky called SOAR, talked about about how tech training is helping the helping the coal mining community reimagine what a job looks like.

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Interapt's training location in Paintsville, KY, at the Big Sandy Community and Technical College.

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

"We're challenging people to get past the thought that a job has to be on Main Street," said Arnett. "There are Amazon jobs, there are Google jobs. You can be a writer. You can start a blog. Some of the people in the pilot program were former coal miners. Some were underemployed. One was a McDonald's employee.

"For one of the first times, we're leading by example," said Arnett. "We're thinking about the next 20 years. We're building a 21st century Appalachia.

"If you're from the mountains," he said, "you've got grit."

3. Earl Gohl, Federal Co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC)

ARC has funded the TechHire initiative in eastern Kentucky, partnering with Interapt as well as the community college to help develop a workforce in tech. The goal is to keep the retrained workforce in the area. "It's our hope to take the energy we see today to develop a workforce in eastern Kentucky that can become part of the digital workforce and the gig economy," Gohl said. Gohl also said he hopes the workforce will become part of the local economy.

SEE: Launching a startup: A primer for new entrepreneurs (Tech Pro Research)

4. US Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky)

The downturn in the economy of eastern Kentucky, because of the "coal slump," has sparked a need to look for new jobs for the digital age. "It's difficult to build factories here because of the terrain, the costs, and the lack of highways," Rogers said. "But it doesn't matter where you are if you have the Internet."

Rogers called the area "Silicon Holler." This region, he said, echoing Arnett, has "the best work ethic in the country."

5. Christian Campbell, Apprentice, Interapt

Campbell was born and raised in Magoffin County, Kentucky, which he says is known as "a less fortunate place to grow up in."

"There are no jobs," said Campbell. "People have to leave."

Campbell's mother saw a posting about the apprenticeship on Facebook, and tipped off her son about the opportunity. He feels fortunate for his apprenticeship, saying he's "grateful something this big is coming to the area." Campbell plans to apply this knowledge to a future job at Interapt.

6. Interapt apprentices: Crystal Adkins, Devan Allara, Alex Hughes, Jeremiah Lewis

Interapt interns, or "apprentices," enroll in a 33-week coding academy that pays students a living wage to learn app development—and these students will be eligible, upon program completion, for a full-time job at Interapt. Four apprentices, on their own, decided to develop an app to help their fellow students who were struggling financially. They called the Secret Santa app "Gift it," and raised $2,300.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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