A Public-Private Effort to Build New Tech Careers in Kentucky’s Coal Country

Courtesy Interapt


Connecting state and local government leaders

TechHire Eastern Kentucky is different than a community college training course or coding bootcamp. And it’s been a life-changing opportunity for some who have few other options.

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in an ongoing series of articles examining economic development challenges in U.S. cities and localities. | PREVIOUSLY: Fresno, California

As a management team member at a Kmart store in Paintsville, Kentucky, Sean Crowl said he was known as someone who had a knack for technology.

“At the store they called me ‘the computer guy’ even though I didn’t really have any training,” Crowl, 29, said by phone in late December. “I’ve always been interested in computers and technology, but never really had the chance to go very far into it.”

“I’m kind of sitting on an English degree, associates,” he added, “that doesn’t get you far in life.”

Last April, Sears Holdings, Kmart’s parent company, announced it would close 78 stores, including the Kmart in Paintsville.

Located about 160 miles east of Louisville, the city has roughly 4,000 residents. It is one of many communities across Appalachia where declines in the coal industry have sapped the local economy.

‘Jumped at the Chance’

Around the time Crowl learned he would be out of a job before year’s end, a coworker told him about an advertisement he’d seen for something called TechHire Eastern Kentucky, or TEKY.

The program was designed to give eastern Kentuckians a shot at learning computer coding and programming skills—languages like JavaScript, Swift and jQuery, for instance. The kind of know-how a person needs to work on software development or mobile applications.

But TEKY is different than a community college course, or a “coding bootcamp.”

A Louisville-based software development firm, Interapt, took a lead role coming up with the initiative, which the company’s CEO, Ankur Gopal, has referred to as a “hiring program.”

Those who successfully complete a four-month classroom curriculum transition to apprenticeships with the company and after that possibly full-time jobs. Throughout their time in class and as apprentices participants earn a $400 weekly stipend.

For Crowl, deciding whether to apply to the program was not a difficult choice. “I absolutely jumped at the chance,” he said.

He wasn’t alone. Nearly 850 people competed for 50 or so slots in the first ever TEKY cohort. After making it through an application process that included video and in-person interviews and an aptitude test, Crowl was one of those who made the cut.

On Wednesday, he and 34 other TEKY participants graduated from the program’s inaugural classroom instruction phase—18 of the 53 originally accepted trainees did not finish the rigorous curriculum. 

“As someone who worked retail for 10 years, to have a chance at a program like this was just fantastic,” Crowl said. “It did change my life.”

A Public-Private Effort

TEKY is funded by $4.5 million of mostly federal grant money and falls under a national TechHire initiative, which the Obama administration launched in 2015. Several groups that straddle the public and private sector have worked with Interapt to make the program possible.

The lead partner is Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc., or EKCEP. Headquartered in Hazard, Kentucky, the organization offers access to state and federal programs to help people get jobs. Concentrated employment programs were initially formed in the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Among the other TEKY partners is a group focused on economic development in Kentucky, Shaping Our Appalachian Region, which is co-chaired by Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, both Republicans. Big Sandy Community and Technical College is also involved. Classes for the program have been held at the school’s Mayo Campus in Paintsville.

A sizable chunk of the program’s funding came from a $2.7 million Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, grant awarded last August through the Appalachian Regional Commission. That federal grant program is intended to help places affected by coal job-losses. The other big grant contribution was about $1.7 million from EKCEP, allocated under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

As planned, 200 people will pass through the program over the course of three years.

“We feel that the cost per participant is a value,” said Michael Cornett, EKCEP’s director of agency expansion. “If you do your part and you do the certifications,” he added, “you come out of this employed by a leading software development company.”

An Intense Curriculum

To develop a custom curriculum, Interapt worked with Eleven Fifty Academy, an Indiana-based nonprofit that concentrates on teaching people coding and programming skills.

“You’re not going to come out of this as a Google coder,” acknowledges Gopal, the CEO of Interapt. “But you are going to have the skills to build technology solutions that our customers need.”

“And you’re going to be able to build a career,” he added.

The curriculum was designed to be intense, more like a job than a class.

Steve Bowling is one of the program participants.

“You had eight to nine hours a day in class and then every evening you had at least two to three hours of homework. Then on the weekends you had a total of about seven to eight hours of homework,” he said. “If you don’t have the time, or just the drive, to put in that kind of work, then you’re going to fall behind.”

Neither Crowl or Bowling had experience writing computer code when they began with TEKY. “It looked like gibberish to me,” said Crowl. “I couldn’t make heads or tails to it.” But as the end of their training approached, both of them were working on mobile app projects.

“Before the program, not one person knew how to even start down the path of how to build a mobile application,” Gopal said. “Now, every single one of them can go home tonight and build their own app and start their own company if they wanted to.”

Harsh Economic Backdrop

It’s hard to understate the effect the U.S. coal downturn has had on eastern Kentucky.

There were about 14,300 coal jobs in the region in 2008, according to state figures. Toward the later part of last year, only 3,600 remained. Coal production in the region fell from around 91 million tons in 2008, to 28 million in 2015. Statewide last October, there were fewer people working at coal mines in Kentucky than at any time since the 1800s.

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to help revive the nation’s coal industry. But tougher federal environmental regulations are only one factor putting a crimp on the sector. Cheap natural gas and softened global exports are also to blame. West Virginia and Kentucky, meanwhile, are at a disadvantage compared to Wyoming, where miners rely more heavily less-expensive surface mines, as opposed to digging for coal underground.

Crowl recalled how the mining slump looked in the aisles of the Kmart where he used to work.

“You could just see people didn’t have the money to spend anymore. It hurt our business big time,” he said. “We were used to seeing miners come in, after the day was up, still covered in soot, looking for tools. We sold Craftsman, that was a big thing. And you could just tell, as the years went on, less and less of them were coming in.”

Crowl said had it not been for TEKY his job options in the Paintsville area would have been slim.

“If this hadn’t come along, once Kmart closed, my aspirations would have been to work at Wal-Mart. That would have literally been the best option here. Because we’ve got a Wal-Mart and then we’ve got fast food stores.” He added: “Other than that there’s nothing.”

‘I Didn’t Want to Leave’

Bowling, who is 40, lives south of Paintsville in Harold. After about a decade as a salesman at a lumberyard, he worked for five years in the coal industry as an explosives technician. Around the time the mining sector began to falter, he got a job selling life insurance.

Eventually that line of work soured, too.

“Everybody realized they couldn’t afford their insurance,” he said.

When people discontinued their policies, Bowling explained, the insurance company would take back commission he’d been paid for sales. Near the end of his time as a life insurance agent, Bowling said he received two-week paychecks that were around $30 after taxes.

His next job was an assistant manager position at a Dairy Queen.

“That was not something I wanted to do,” said Bowling, who is married and has one child. “I hadn’t worked in fast food since I was in high school. It was tough to go back to something that you thought you would never have to do. But you do what you do to keep a roof over your head and food on the table.”

He applied to the TEKY program after his wife saw a post about it on Facebook.

Bowling said when the coal money ebbed “this whole area pretty well dried up. It’s tough for everybody. A lot of people had to pack up and move because they just couldn’t make it.”

Why’d he stay? One reason was that he had family in the area. “Plus, you have a house. The housing market’s down,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave, plus it’d be really tough financially.”

‘This Is Replicable’

Giving people a way to stay in eastern Kentucky, while earning a decent living, is one of the goals with the TEKY program. “We wanted to keep people in their hometowns,” Gopal said.

This will be the case when participants start their apprenticeships with Interapt this month. “We’ll probably have some team members commute from Louisville to eastern Kentucky. And eastern Kentuckians will come to Louisville from time to time. Just like any company,” Gopal said. But as for moving all the high performers in the program to Louisville. “That’s just brain drain.”

Ankur Gopal, CEO of Interapt (Photo courtesy Interapt)

Jared Arnett, executive director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, said eastern Kentucky “has become known nationally as the place that will train to meet remote workforce needs. And not just customer service jobs, but higher wage jobs as well.”

He said his group had discussed possibilities along these lines with companies like Amazon Web Services, IBM and Cisco.

Across Kentucky and Appalachia, according to Arnett, there are state-of-the-art community college facilities. “Yet we don’t have the demand for a workforce for them to be training people locally,” he said. Going forward, he added, “companies will be the ones communicating with our community colleges and they can really rebuild and restructure programs to meet their needs.”

He called the program with Interapt “a proof of concept.”

Interapt may not be the only company that turns to the TEKY blueprint. Talks are “confidential,” but Gopal said “many large companies and small” have reached out to him “and are interested in coming up with a plan to come join our efforts.”

“This is replicable,” he added

‘Just a Lot of Grit’

Jobs in the coal industry can pay well. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the average annual wage for some engineers in the industry in May 2015 was around $92,000. For underground loading machine operators it was $51,850.

When mining region economic recovery plans hinge on tourism or service jobs, they can get criticized for only promising to deliver lower wage employment. Gopal said the TEKY program was geared toward getting people on track to jobs that pay in the $40,000 to $60,000 range.

Arnett stressed that the region is not giving up on coal. “If we could get 5,000 of those jobs back,” he said, “it would make a big difference.” But even if coal “does come back for five years, 10 years, 15 years,” Arnett added, “we need to stay the course of diversifying this economy.”

Crowl, the TEKY participant who worked at Kmart, said the strong showing by people in the program is evidence the regional workforce can adapt. “So many people are getting through it and doing well,” he said. “It’s just a testament to how hard people are willing to work here. They come from coal families. So they’ve seen people who’ve had to work hard … It’s just a lot of grit.”

“They know when an opportunity like this comes along, you have to take it,” he continued. “You have to work hard. You have to do what you can. Because there’s nothing else and you don’t want to lose it.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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