Workforce

Can coding save coal country?

At first glance, coal mining and software development might seem worlds apart. To Rusty Justice, they have a lot in common.

Modern-day mining isn’t brute manual labor, done by soot-covered, pickax-wielding men in hard hats. “It hasn’t looked like that in 70 years,” Justice explains in his leisurely Kentucky drawl over coffee in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s very complex. Mining involves robotics, remote sensing, programmable logic controllers. So [there are] many transferable skills.”

With that in mind, Justice, a former mining engineer, and his business partner, Lynn Parrish, founded Bit Source in 2015 in their native Pikeville, Kentucky. Their mission: find and hire unemployed mining industry workers with an aptitude for software development, train them to code, and build up a company out of Appalachia that could compete in the U.S. tech marketplace. It’s a good fit for the region, Justice argues, “because you can do it from anywhere. Being in the mountains, you’re geographically bound and agriculture, manufacturing, all of those things don’t work. We say the fiber-optic cable levels our mountains, and it’s the first industry that’s ever done that.”

 

Bit Source is still in its pilot phase. The company initially hired 10 unemployed miners and has taken on just three more this year. It’s done projects mostly for businesses and organizations in eastern Kentucky, including a regional tourism board and a long-haul trucking company. Still, it’s gotten a lot of attention as a model for a tangible solution for workers and communities whose livelihoods are in decline due to automation, the collapse of certain industries, and a scarcity of jobs. But the company, says Justice, faces steep obstacles that speak to the larger difficulty of catching up regions like Appalachia with the more humming parts of the country’s economy.

Coal been shedding jobs for nearly three decades. The industry employed nearly 250,000 people nationwide in 1980; now jobs number below 100,000. Meanwhile, computer skills increasingly mark the dividing line between having a stable, middle-class job and not having one. According to a September report from the labor market data analysis firm Burning Glass, “middle-skill jobs that demand digital skills average $20 per hour; those with advanced digital skills such as IT networking or CRM software can command salaries at or above $28/hour, which places them in the top quartile of all earners.”

As a result, ventures like Bit Source are tackling the question of how to help along the transition from declining industries, like manufacturing and coal mining, to IT and other computer-based work. “If we don’t get on that side of the digital divide, we’ve got no shot,” Justice says.

 

A Bit Source employee at work. For its first round of hiring, the company took on 10 unemployed coal industry workers, drawing from a pool of nearly 1,000 applicants. Photo courtesy of Bit Source

Statistics back him up. The increased “digitization” of the workforce could play a big role in determining the economic fate of a city or region, according to a November project from Brookings. Cities and metro regions with higher levels of “digital skills” tend to have higher median wages.

Additionally, geographic inequality — in which certain areas stockpile talent and resources, while areas like Pikeville endure high unemployment, population loss, and deep poverty — is an increasing worry for many experts, who have cited it as a factor in a wide range of problems, from the opioid crisis to the country’s increasingly polarized politics. In 2012, conservative political scientist Charles Murray defined the phenomenon as “SuperZIPs,” in which residents from a few rarefied ZIP codes control politics and culture, and live sequestered from lower-income sections of the country.

“There are two Americas,” Steve Case, a founder of America Online who has begun funding startups in the Midwest, told the New York Times in November. “One with an abundance of capital and opportunity — in Silicon Valley and pockets around the nation. But not in the other America, and that other America is most of the country.”

Bit Source is a small step in addressing that gap, and the promise of the idea has touched a nerve. In November, Justice was in Boston to speak at MIT’s AI and the Future of Work event, a two-day conference of panel discussions and expert talks, and nearly every academic and industry leader who spoke after him took time to rave about what his company is doing. He says he’s been contacted by business leaders in other mining states, including in Colorado and Montana, interested in getting similar programs going.

To cater the increased need for IT skills, coding boot camps and other training programs have become commonplace over the last few years. In fact, their growth may have been too fast, and some major programs are shutting downor retooling. In creating Bit Source, Justice and Parrish took a more holistic approach to closing the digital skills gap.

“Bit Source was never a school,” Justice says. “Coding boot camps, there’s nothing wrong with them, but if we train a person in Appalachia and don’t give them a job, then they leave with those new skills. So [if] we’ve invested in them and then they’ve left our region, that exacerbates our problems.”

Bit Source trainees are employed from day one and learn on the job for 22 weeks. The training component of their employment is funded through a Labor Department grant, part of $35.5 million in funds set aside by the Obama administration to help regions in eastern Kentucky adapt in the wake of coal’s decline.

Workers develop projects including small-business websites, games, and an app that locates opioid overdoses and signals for first responders. If the short-term goal is giving area miners new careers, then the loftier, long-term aim is to build out a tech sector within Appalachia that keeps educated natives from moving away and lures in fresh talent from elsewhere.

 

It’s a tall order. Pikeville’s 11.6 percent unemployment rate is nearly three times the national average; 22 percent of the town’s 7,000 residents live in poverty. When Justice and Parrish took out a local radio ad calling for 10 unemployed miners to work for Bit Source, they got nearly 1,000 applications. “It speaks to the magnitude of the problem,” Justice says. “But we believe that our workforce is capable as any workforce. They have a great work ethic, and they’ve progressed at a pretty steep learning curve and now they see that this can be their career.”

Another challenge: winning the respect of the marketplace outside Appalachia. Bit Source has secured one contract out of Silicon Valley, and Justice is hoping that his increased visibility and participation in events like MIT’s will help build those connections and expand the business.

“I’m an unapologetic hillbilly,” Justice says. “And there’s a stereotype about that. And so when you are in a region that has this perception, it’s a challenge. We just ask people to give us a chance. To a certain extent, we’ve bought into that ourselves, that negative thinking. So changing the narrative is equally as important as the skills.”