Central Appalachia is going through an economic transformation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Eastern Kentucky, where more than 8,000 coal industry jobs have disappeared since 2012.
While the question remains as to where that transformation ultimately leads, there are signs pointing the way and progress to report.
It was one year ago that the White House tapped Eastern Kentucky as one of its first TechHire Communities in the nation to lead the way in preparing a regional workforce for the jobs that will drive a new American economy.
TechHire is a multi-sector effort designed to meet the demand of open Information Technology (IT) jobs through increased access to accelerated technology training, including “coding bootcamps” and quality, fast-track online courses designed to be completed in a few months in lieu of a four-year degree.
The TechHire East Kentucky (TEKY) initiative has since taken the first concrete steps to build a technology ecosystem in a region that for decades has largely relied on a single-source economy.
“The demand for IT jobs across the nation is increasing,” said Michael Cornett, director of agency expansion for the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP). “TechHire East Kentucky’s strategy is designed specifically to help workers right here in our region prepare for and excel in these types of positions that we know employers are trying to fill and will continue to need in the future.”
Strategic partners in TEKY include EKCEP; Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR); Louisville technology firm Interapt (a Google Glass and Nest Labs partner); Pikeville technology firm Bit Source; the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS); Fullstack Academy of New York; East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) of Winchester; and Kindred Healthcare of Louisville. TEKY will not only quickly train and prepare Eastern Kentucky’s workforce to take advantage of the increased need for skilled information technology (IT) workers across the nation, but also provide job opportunities with quality employers once that training is complete.
To help build this ecosystem, TEKY has applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for a TechHire Partnership Grant that seeks to deliver accelerated, industry-designed and led IT training to up to 400 people for high-growth IT and IT-related jobs, also providing training stipends and paid, work-based internships leading to employment.
Leadership from Red Hat, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based multinational software company that provides open-source products to the enterprise community, has also committed to support and collaborate with TEKY’s core partners by providing critical consultation connecting Eastern Kentucky’s efforts to those in other TechHire communities and rural areas of the U.S. This collaboration will build synergies and collective momentum to create even more employment and training opportunities by exploring “Domestic IT Sourcing” models that bring technology jobs back to rural America from foreign countries. The 3M corporation is also contributing to the effort by providing process and technology consulting to TEKY core partner Bit Source.
Bit Source, the first coding firm of its kind in the region, has already proven the concept of accelerated technology training and job placement.
Founded by Pikeville, Ky., businessmen Charles “Rusty” Justice and M. Lynn Parrish, Bit Source developed an intensive five-month training program and utilized workforce and retraining funds provided by EKCEP to upskill 10 people—including nine former coal industry workers—to become computer programmers specializing in website development and mobile applications. These 10 employees completed training in August 2015 and are now working full-time as coders at Bit Source.
“We know Eastern Kentucky’s workers and employers can meet the goals of TechHire, and we know that because we’re already seeing it,” Cornett said. “Bit Source has clearly demonstrated that our region’s miners and others are agile and adaptive problem solvers, the same type of worker who can thrive in an IT environment.”
A component of the TEKY initiative is the creation of a transformative training and work center in the region that will serve as an entry point into the initiative’s immersive training programs, as well as technology employment opportunities. TEKY plans to work with KCTCS to initially locate such a facility at a center location of Big Sandy Community and Technical College (BSCTC), as well as collaborate with KCTCS’s Enhancing Programs for IT Certification (EPIC) online, on-demand training program focusing on Computer Information Technology and Medical Information Technology certificates and degrees.
While Eastern Kentucky isn’t geographically close to the nation’s traditional tech hotpots, the upcoming Kentucky Wired broadband fiber expansion project in the region promises to eliminate those barriers, exposing Eastern Kentucky’s workers to in-demand jobs that can be performed remotely via high-speed connectivity.
This remote-work model is already proving successful in parts of Eastern Kentucky through EKCEP’s Teleworks USA initiative, which helped bring more than 150 jobs and an estimated $3 million economic impact to Jackson County and surrounding counties in 2015 alone.
One year after the official TechHire designation, developing the tech skills of the nation’s workforce remains a White House priority. While marking the initiative’s one-year anniversary on March 9, the President announced an expansion to bring the total number of TechHire communities to 50.
Further, strides are being made in Eastern Kentucky to prepare K-12 students for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) career pathways through the work of partners at the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative’s (KVEC) Race to the Top and Appalachian Technology Institute (ATI) initiatives, and EKPC’s SOAR STEM program that will bring the renowned Project Lead The Way curriculum to school districts throughout the region.
“Through these combined efforts and TechHire East Kentucky, we expect to provide Eastern Kentucky workers with the opportunities to build a new economy and succeed in it,” Cornett added. “We are fortunate and grateful to have the strong support of the White House, SOAR, KCTCS, and our technology industry partners in this effort.”
The SOAR Executive Board unanimously endorsed the TEKY regional tech employment strategy during its most recent meeting in February, which included input from Fifth District U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. The strategy also garnered unanimous support from the Eastern Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board (EKWIB).
SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett noted that TEKY has the potential to place Eastern Kentucky’s workers in a position to lead the way in meeting the needs of today’s employers.
“How powerful would it be if we met those needs with our own people?” Arnett said. “That’s what this is about.”
To learn more, visit the TechHire East Kentucky community page online at: http://techhire.org/community/eastern-kentucky/
EKCEP, a nonprofit workforce development agency headquartered in Hazard, Ky., serves 23 Appalachian coalfield counties. The agency provides an array of workforce development services and also administers the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program, which provides career services to laid-off miners and their spouses. Find out more at www.jobsight.org and www.facebook.com/ekcep.