Innovation

Silicon Holler: How workforce retraining is bringing tech jobs to Appalachia

A program to retrain eastern Kentuckians in tech skills has been renewed for a second year. Here's why it's being championed by politicians and the tech industry.

As demand to fill tech jobs has skyrocketed, some companies are settling outside of Silicon Valley and taking new approaches to finding talent. Last September, Ankur Gopal, CEO of the tech startup Interapt in Louisville, KY, launched an intensive training program in eastern Kentucky, paying 50 Kentuckians a living wage while preparing them for jobs at the company.

On Monday, at the Big Sandy Community and Technical College, Kentucky politicians, tech leaders, and students gathered to celebrate the success of the program—and Interapt announced its renewal for a second year.

The event, hosted by Congressman Hal Rogers, Congressman Ro Khanna and Governor Matt Bevin was held in Paintsville, KY—a town of 5,300—and was called "Transforming IT Workforce Training in Eastern Kentucky." It included a roundtable, led by SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), that included political leaders, the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, representatives from Apple and Amazon, and leaders in education, business, and economic development.

Interapt's program is meant to not only provide an opportunity for people from eastern Kentucky, a region that has struggled economically, but to develop a workforce it hopes to later employ. There were more than 800 first round applicants for the training program, of which 35 were eventually selected. The group had varying backgrounds—and included everyone from coal miners to former McDonald's employees to former IT workers.

The TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY) program is an intensive 32-week program—16 weeks of paid classroom work, followed by a 16-week paid apprenticeship. The aim is to teach skills in designing, building and supporting modern mobile software applications. Once they graduate, students have been groomed for a career building software.

Gopal said he hopes this model will inspire other economically depressed communities to support training for next generation jobs.

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

"We are looking towards the future, and reimagining what a job is," said Jared Arnett, executive director for SOAR. "It doesn't have to be on Main Street. It doesn't have to be industrial." One big reason that eastern Kentuckians can begin to enter the tech workforce, said Arnett, is the availability of broadband—which hasn't always been available in the region.

interapt.jpg

Megan Rogers, 3rd US CTO (March 13, 2017).

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

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

Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers called the area "Silicon Holler." This region, he said, has "the best work ethic in the country."

Arnett echoed the sentiment: "If you're from the mountains," he said, "you've got grit."

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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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