Environment

A Louisville-based tech company will train a second cohort of coders in Eastern Kentucky. Interapt announced the news Monday at an event in Paintsville, along with a bipartisan group of politicians and tech company representatives.

The group that descended on Paintsville (population about 4,300) for the announcement hints at what a big deal this is. And while Interapt’s efforts are relatively small — the first class trained 35 workers, and this new class will train about 50 — they’re part of a bigger effort. Local leaders hope the tech sector will help boost the region’s economy.

It’s not Silicon Valley, but they’re optimistically calling it “Silicon Hollow.”

A Good Fit

Eastern Kentucky has been one of the poorest parts of the country for decades, but the region’s problems have increased in recent years with the decline of good-paying coal mining jobs. In 2008, there were more than 15,000 working miners in the region. Now, state data show there are only about 3,700.

But attracting other businesses to the region has always been a struggle. Much of Eastern Kentucky is geographically remote and isolated, which doesn’t make it very conducive to the sort of blue-collar jobs for which many area residents would be qualified.

That’s why some people think the tech sector might be a good fit. The only infrastructure that’s needed for jobs like coding to thrive is a high-speed internet connection. And while even that isn’t exactly a given in Eastern Kentucky, several companies have launched programs to train and eventually employ local residents. One of the first was BitSource, which trains former coal miners to code in Pikeville. Another is CentralApp Technologies.

And at the meeting on Monday, Gov. Matt Bevin and Congressman Hal Rogers stressed the region’s potential to technology companies.

“We think that Eastern Kentucky should be very attractive to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurship,” Rogers said during a roundtable discussion. “That is, we have a very work ethic-oriented population, we love to work hard, and very competitive wages, with tremendous retraining capabilities already in place.”

Bevin echoed that, saying the region’s workforce needs to take advantage of this opportunity.

“What can we do here in Kentucky, with our ability, with our can-do attitude and our work ethic and our willingness to stand in the gap and take it in the teeth, because we’re tough people,” he said. “And if we can do that, stand in the gap, take advantage of this changing cycle around us and be part of the future, we will now no longer have to sit back and wait. We’ll be proactive instead of reactive.”

‘We think there are smart people everywhere’

One of the people Rogers and Bevin were trying to sell on the region was there, too. Congressman Ro Khanna is a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley. In an interview after the event, he told KQED he sees benefits for his constituents in building connections with the talent pool in Eastern Kentucky.

“It’s a huge potential workforce of talented people for the Valley, and of course, they’re being trained on products that are made in my district, on Apple and Google software, which is why they were excited to have me down there,” he said.

The Interapt program — TechHire Eastern Kentucky, or TEKY — will choose about 50 people for its spring 2017 class. They’ll be paid to attend coding classes at a community college for 16 weeks, then be paid for a 16-week internship. After successful completion of the program, they’ll be hired by Interapt as full-time employees.

“When I started [TEKY], I said, if this works, this could be transformative for the region,” said Interapt CEO Ankur Gopal. “If it doesn’t work, then at least we know what else we need to be doing next. So it was a win-win in my opinion, fail or succeed. So that’s what attracted me — I wanted to be doing something so we could get our next steps.”

The training is a public-private partnership, made possible with a $2.75 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration and the Department of Labor. Gopal said there’s an altruistic element to the project, sure. But there are capitalist reasons it makes sense for his company to train and hire workers in Eastern Kentucky.

“We said if we can identify a skilled trainable loyal workforce that has the ability to learn things quickly, then we knew they could keep up with the speed of technology,” he said. “That’s a real business advantage for us. Not just cost-wise, but also skill-wise. We think there are smart people everywhere, and if we can hold onto them, retain them and give them a good career, they’re going to work hard.”

TEKY will begin accepting applications soon for training beginning in the spring.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.