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From Coal to Code

By Joe Dysart

April 20, 2017

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U.S. coal miners, facing futures shredded by that industry's continuing contraction, the bankruptcy of four publicly traded U.S. coal companies in the last two years, and ongoing massive layoffs, are getting a new lease on life from an unlikely sector: software programming.

Following weeks of extensive training by organizations like the non-profit Mined Mines, some coal miners are trading their pickaxes and helmets for laptops and mice.

"Watching someone do something that they never thought they could do, and seeing their eyes light up as they see themselves growing as a software developer is amazing," says Amanda Laucher, co-founder of the Mined Minds Foundation, which brings software development education, training, and job placement services to coal towns in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The inspiration for Mined Minds came to Laucher in 2015 after her brother lost his job digging coal in western Pennsylvania. In a eureka moment, Laucher, who grew up in Nemacolin, PA, decided to partner with her husband Jonathan Graham—who like her, was living in Chicago and working at a high-paying coding job—to return to her roots in the Keystone State (Pennsylvania) and offer hard-luck miners a path to prosperity.

Laucher's brother diligently worked his way through her educational program, graduated, and snagged a steady job as a programmer, which he still has. Since then, 43 men and 27 women have done the same.

"Our program is not your typical eight-week bootcamp," Laucher says.  "We have 16 weeks of intensive, hands-on training, and then the graduates enter into a paid apprenticeship. By the end of the program, graduates can contribute great value to a team."

The program has a drop-out rate averaging 20%, Laucher says, with only one graduate completing the training and then opting for a line of work other than coding. 

Laucher says she and Graham can train as many as 200 new coders a year, drawn mostly from the ranks of out-of-work coal miners. "These folks are not the type to be beaten," Laucher says.  "They'll always come out okay because they are hard-working and never give up."

At $8,000, the tuition to Mined Minds is a bit steep for an unemployed coal miner (even though it includes a laptop),  but many get financial aid from a program of Pennsylvania CareerLink designed to foster job retraining for coal miners and others, so most attend at little or no cost.

Besides breathing new life into coal country, Laucher hopes the success of Mined Minds becomes a wake-up call to the computing coding industry.  It's a proof-in-execution story, she says, that valued, untapped workforces currently lie squirreled away in far-flung rural sectors like Appalachia.

"There is absolutely no reason in 2017 for your entire software development team to live in San Francisco, Chicago, or New York," Laucher says.  "We have technology that allows us to work effectively from remote corners of the world.

"The benefit of working in coal-mining towns is that you are working with teams that are already formed and depending on each other. You are working with people who aren't in it to get rich and actually want to do quality work for fair wages."

Even so, Laucher realizes part of the onus of getting the word out rests firmly on boot camps like hers.

Nick Such, co-founder of a coding bootcamp called Awesome Inc U  in Lexington, KY, agrees. "For any industry like this to sustainably grow, it's necessary to have a certain critical mass and interaction among members of the community," Such says.  "I think one of the biggest opportunities for growth in tech jobs here is in connecting people."

Fortunately for employers up against a shortage of qualified software programmers,  there are a number of organizations keen on serving up highly qualified coders from unexpected locales.

  • freeCodeCamp, for example, offers online coding training to anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection. Currently, more 400,000 students are working their way through the not-for-profit's 2,080-hour program.   More than 4,000 of its students have won developer jobs after completing the free school's training, and more than 5,000 experienced developers have been able to attain better positions after working their way through freeCodeCamp.
  • Since 2014, for-profit software developer Bit Source in Pikeville, KY, has been working to transform former coal miners into computer coders. The company put out a call for workers in the region who wanted to try a new career, and received 8,000 applications, from which it chose 11. One of those didn't complete the training; the other 10 became, and are still, Bit Source employees.  

"The tech industry needs to understand that talent exists in new regions of the country,  and at reasonable rates," Laucher says.  "We need to start taking advantage of the new workforce and employing them in regions where they currently live."

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, NY. 

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