Hundreds are gathered today in Pikeville, Kentucky, for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, Innovation summit on revitalizing the economy in Eastern Kentucky.
Part of the emphasis of the SOAR initiative is retraining the region’s workers for jobs away from the coal industry, which has imploded in recent years. And one of the solutions that has emerged is a burgeoning technology sector.
Recently, officials have promoted a tech job training program called TechHire, funded partly by federal grants. But the program is under fire for not generating as many jobs as many had hoped.
Ankur Gopal is the CEO and founder of Interapt, the Louisville-based technology company that partnered with government agencies to launch TechHire Eastern Kentucky. Last year Gopal laid out his goals for the project.
“We are looking for up to 50 people in Eastern Kentucky to come train with us, and be part of our Interapt team, to build the next software solutions of the future,” he said.
But last week, the Daily Signal, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, published a critical report about the program. The article’s headline reads: “$2 Million Obama-Era Program Gets 17 People Jobs.”
A spokesperson for Interapt disputes the Heritage figures, and claims that many more participants in the program found work.
At the SOAR summit, Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program director Jeff Whitehead didn’t take issue with the numbers, but defended TechHire’s worth.
“Currently there are 17 people working in a field that did not exist in Eastern Kentucky,” he said. “They’re not on public assistance, and they’re not having to move away from the place that they live. It wasn’t the results that we had hoped for, but if we hadn’t had that humongous expectation, we’d be pretty happy.”
Whitehead says a second round of TechHire Eastern Kentucky will be starting this spring.
This story has been updated.