As the coal industry collapses, tens of thousands of coal miners have lost jobs, and communities that used to depend on the industry are also struggling to survive. In Pikeville, Kentucky, a small town in the middle of coal country, one startup has responded by experimenting with something new: teaching former coal miners to code.
Bit Source was launched by two local entrepreneurs who had no experience in technology, but realized, after talking to another tech company, that programming could be a viable way to replace lost jobs.
“They decided, we’re going to try this–we’re going to teach a coal miner how to code and see what happens,” says Justin Hall, president of Bit Source, who the entrepreneurs brought on to help create the business. They bought a former Coca-Cola bottling plant and turned it into a place to train their future developers.
There was an immediate demand for the jobs. When they advertised for 10 positions in March of 2015, 950 people applied. The 10 people they hired had all worked in the coal industry: three above-ground miners, three below-ground miners, an electrician, and an EMT. For the next 22 weeks, they learned how to program.
“The one common thing everybody had the first day on the job was basically that they could post to Facebook, and they could email,” Hall says. “They didn’t know anything about HTML or CSS. So basically, this was a huge change. They’re going from being outdoors to being indoors and being on a computer all the time.”
Despite their lack of experience, the former miners learned quickly. “We found out that coal miners are really just engineers that get dirty,” he says. “They’ve got the ability to process abstract thought and the ability to solve problems. It was just with different tools, a mining belt … we replaced that with Sublime and Git.”
By August of 2015, they started to take on some client work and also began working on some projects of their own, like websites designed to spark tourism in Appalachia. The company is hoping to eventually turn Eastern Kentucky into a tech hub.
“We’ve been exporting coal for a long time,” Hall says. “This is what we’re known for. And now what we want to do is export code. We want to work with anybody, anywhere … we want to develop a tech sector here in Pike County.”
Bit Source is on the verge of becoming profitable, though they need to continue to find more clients to keep it going. “Things are looking good,” he says. “Our team is improving. They’re problem-solvers now, they’re no longer miners. They’re developers.”