Coding might become the new mining.
When you think of places where technology rules, does rural eastern Kentucky come to mind?
When I think tech, I think Silicon Valley — an area that's such a tech bubble (and occasionally a parody of itself), there's even a TV show about it. And then you have other obvious hubs: the New Yorks, L.A.s and Tokyos of the world. The tech world loves cities.
But a push to create a high-tech ecosystem is happening in an area you'd least expect: the heart of coal country.
In a new initiative called TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY), students are getting paid to learn to code, with the hope of launching the area onto the tech map.
Yep, getting paid to learn to code. How unheard of is that?
The program is equipping local residents with the skills they need to turn their deeply struggling economy around with technology jobs. And with the support of local governments, Congressional leaders, tech businesses, schools, and community leaders, it just might work.
TEKY works like this: Eastern Kentucky residents apply to the program. If selected, they are paid to learn to code at a local community college in a rigorous 16-week program. Upon successful completion of class and a 16-week paid internship that follows, students are offered full-time employment at the technology company Interapt, which is expanding from Louisville into eastern Kentucky.
The program hopes to answer the question: Can you train a tech workforce and build a tech ecosystem where one doesn't exist?
It's hard enough to build a tech business in a major city, let alone in the remote region of eastern Kentucky, a part of the country that's known for getting left behind.
What was once an area booming with the coal industry, eastern Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia continue to deeply struggle as that industry fades out. Poverty rates and percentages of working poor are higher there than the rest of the country. And wages, employment rates, and education continue to lag behind.
But Ankur Gopal, a fellow Kentuckian and the CEO of Interapt, thinks coding might be the way to bring jobs back into the area — and keep them there.
When Gopal first entertained the idea of expanding his tech businesses into eastern Kentucky, he knew it was the opposite direction a tech company would normally take. But he was impressed by the hardworking, loyal, and passionate people who loved their communities there, and he wanted to give it a shot.
"That’s the beauty of technology and the opportunity it brings," Gopal said after the program launch. "If you have connectivity and the skillset, you can work wherever you want and make a very good living. We intend to make that a reality."
Removing barriers is critical to making that reality a success — and one of the most obvious barriers is the cost of education. The fact that students get paid to learn through TEKY, instead of the other way around, shows an incredibly thoughtful approach.
"You can’t learn something hard if you’re worrying about where your family’s next meal is coming from," Gopal says.
When the program's first class started in August 2016, almost 1,000 candidates applied for the 50 open spots. The second round of the program is expected to start in 2017, and they aim to continue the program until at least 400 jobs have been filled.
Coding skills aren't only helpful for tech jobs. They help lay a foundation for the ability to learn quickly and constantly — and that can be applied anywhere.
But just like any profession, coding isn't for everyone. For those students that decide it isn't right for them, TEKY has resources to guide them down other career paths through local partnerships they've developed.
That may be the biggest accomplishment of all of this: everyone working together. A community that's willing to address the problem of an economically deteriorating region — and coming together to find solutions for it. That's how you get things done.
Gopal hopes this initiative will spark interest with other tech companies and industries, helping local economies to grow and prosper. It's an endeavor that's rewarding from all angles. As he puts it:
"If you give people an opportunity, you’d be surprised at how well they shine."