In Appalachia, Preparing for Life After Coal

In coal country, new programs aim to diversify local economies, retrain workers, and create a pipeline of new workers prepared for jobs in the new economy.

President Trump has vowed to “put coal country back to work.” On the campaign trail he promised to bring back jobs to the industry. And in February, he got rid of a stream protection regulation he called a “job-killing rule.”

But many in the region aren’t counting on President Trump to solve all their problems.

Instead, new programs in states hit by deindustrialization aim to diversify local economies, retrain workers, and create a pipeline of new workers prepared for jobs, like coding, in the new economy.

Education, and “re-education,” are big parts of this picture.

In “The Next Big Blue Collar Job is Coding,” Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson thinks learning to code may be akin to learning to weld in the past—a path to the middle class. He points to local programs like CodeTN that is encouraging local high school students in Tennessee to attend coding programs at community colleges. Thompson argues that introducing kids to vocational training in computer science in high school may be a better idea than always urging four-year degrees.

“These sorts of coders won’t have the deep knowledge to craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks. Why would they need to? That level of expertise is rarely necessary at a job. But any blue-collar coder will be plenty qualified to sling Java­Script for their local bank. That’s a solidly middle-class job, and middle-class jobs are growing: The national average salary for IT jobs is about $81,000 (more than double the national average for all jobs), and the field is set to expand by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than most other occupations.”

In the Pittsburgh region, husband and wife duo Amanda Laucher and Jonathan Graham are developing programs to train coal miners to code, for free. Mining Minds, in Greene County just south of Pittsburgh, helps displaced coal miners learn to code from the comfort of their homes. Laucher, a Greene County native, saw her brother struggle to find a job after coal and it struck her that she could help. She and her husband, an avid coder, launched Mining Minds as a nonprofit coding school. “They heard from coal miners and economic developers in the region that these guys didn’t want to drive for training,” Linda Topoleski of Allegheny Conference on Community Development told us. So they brought coding to them. Not only can miners learn to code online, but they can then become contract coders and work online from home.

These efforts are also tackling another problem: the pipeline is empty. Pittsburgh’s local institutions are working closely with businesses and technology firms to address the region’s “pipeline problem” —the fact that the region isn’t graduating enough children with the skills they need to meet future employer demand.

As we wrote on this blog in the fall:

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers, for example, connects employers with students directly. The organization runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems for the business. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.”

“We aren’t so crazy to think we can just train people for jobs that don’t exist,” says Jeff Hawkins, the director of the education cooperative in Kentucky. “We have to train them in technical areas for jobs that they can get immediately.”

And who knows where that will lead. Governing Magazine recently reported on the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative, 19 school districts in the southeastern part of the state that was originally formed to pool their purchasing power and save money on basic supplies.

Now, writes Governing’s Alan Greenblatt “it runs all kinds of joint training ventures—participating in computer hackathons for rural health, instructing kids on aviation and aeronautics, helping students combine coal spores with algae to create a new biofuel. The results have been impressive. The percentage of high school students who are assessed as ready for college or careers is nearly 90 percent—up from less than 60 percent five years ago.”

Published March 07, 2017

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