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What Silicon Valley’s New Congressman Learned On His Trip To The Heart Of Coal Country

Ro Khanna, a freshman congressman from California, took a trip to build a bridge between the tech sector and “Silicon Holler.”

What Silicon Valley’s New Congressman Learned On His Trip To The Heart Of Coal Country
Representative Ro Khanna. [Photo: courtesy of Ro Khanna]

The disconnect between Silicon Valley and the American heartland was one of the issues highlighted by Donald Trump’s surprise victory, which was largely attributed to working-class voters who felt ignored by business elites and left behind by the forces of globalization. After all, when you’re a 50-year-old in Kentucky who was just laid off at the coal mine, the tech giants aren’t likely to help you find a new job, and the digital economy must not seem like it’s improving your life beyond offering you expensive new smartphones.

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Ro Khanna wants to do something about that, to spur the tech sector to harness the energy and initiative of workers in coal country and the Rust Belt. He’s the 40-year-old freshman congressman from the Silicon Valley region in Northern California–representing tech-centric cities such as Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and San Jose–who is intent on bridging that divide. So when longtime Kentucky congressman Hal Rogers called him up and invited him to visit his district—one of the poorest in the country, ranked 432nd out of 435 districts in median per capita income, per Politico Pro—he jumped at the chance. Last week, Khanna went to Paintsville, a small town hugging the banks of Paint Creek in eastern Kentucky, to meet with former miners who were training to be mobile app developers.

On Wednesday, I talked to him about his experience and the lessons he learned about how to link Silicon Valley to “Silicon Holler,” as Rogers has dubbed the region.

What prompted this trip?

The trip was at the invitation of Hal Rogers, the congressman there. They call themselves “Silicon Holler,” and they’re focused on reinventing their community to take part in the 21st-century economy.

What was your impression?

What struck me was how optimistic they are about taking part in the digital economy and how open they are to diversification.

Someone told me about their father who was laid off three times in one year, who had been working in the mines. They want more opportunity to pursue other careers as well. I kept hearing them talk about diversification—it allows them to stay in the community, in Eastern Kentucky, in Paintsville, where they have generations of family, and which they love.

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And they can still participate in the workforce through the connectivity the technology provides. They were very excited about partnering with Silicon Valley.

From The Mine To The App Store

Tell me about one of their programs, TechHire East Kentucky (TEKY), a federally funded program that trains mobile app developers. How does that work?

It helps coal miners’ kids and coal miners themselves who have no tech background to learn tech skills and learn iOS and Android. And at the end of those four months, you have 34 folks who were hired.

In the past, they’ve had so many scams in Appalachia that promise jobs. But what gave them confidence here is they knew that if they did the training, they would get a job. They knew they would get $400 a week during the training. They were so excited, they were telling their friends and family.

I was incredibly impressed by the energy and vision in Eastern Kentucky. Any community that has that boldness of vision and brings in all the stakeholders can be a leader in providing the jobs of the 21st century. I’m excited about Silicon Holler.

Since the trip, have you reached out to companies in Silicon Valley—Google and Apple and others—to tell them about your experience?

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I’ve reached out to them. But it can’t be top-down, it can’t be imposed from Washington, D.C., or Silicon Valley. There have to be local buy-ins, locals instructing education leaders on what types of skills are necessary. In the past, it was how to replace hard drives. But there are no jobs for that. Now it’s user design or graphic design on iOS, or basic quality control where you can have a job that doesn’t require a computer science degree. And it’s about local leaders like the governor [Matt Bevin], with whom I disagree on so many things, but he needs to be part of the solution, and Hal Rogers, who’s been a visionary in talking about Silicon Holler.

They have an extraordinary work ethic that can be tapped, and we have to think about how tech can harness that energy.

What the Valley Can Offer

Silicon Valley has been criticized for being disconnected from the needs of working-class Americans. What should they be doing?

We can do a better job—to bring them into the 21st-century economy. And how are we going to provide a middle-class life for them? For me, that means investing in the apprenticeship and training programs. Creating partnerships that rewire labor markets so that people are getting the right skills and employers are taking a chance on those skills.

[LinkedIn founder] Reid Hoffman has written a lot about it. Proving health care for all so that people, even with stagnant wages, can have dignified health care. Massive expansion of the earned income tax credit, so folks who are working in these jobs and aren’t having wages go up can have some wage support. Investment in new industries, but locating those new industry investments not just on the coasts, putting a new battery institute, or putting a new National Science Foundation in areas of the country that haven’t seen economic success.

Those are the types of things the Valley needs to be thinking about, not what’s good for the Valley, necessarily, but what the Valley can do for the country. And it’s time for the Valley to answer the national call to service.

Those 34 jobs that were created, those were local, right? Those workers are not moving to California.

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They’re local. Interapt is one company and Bitsource is another company that’s been hiring coal workers. It’s a great example because they’re local jobs. One of the points that hasn’t been written about is that John F. Kennedy went to West Virginia in 1960 and talked about 35% unemployment in McDowell, West Virginia. And Bernie Sanders went there in 2016 and talked about 35% unemployment. Fifty years of social and governmental policy has not moved the needle there. And now Eastern Kentucky is much better, it’s only 10% unemployment.

But the point is, now across Appalachia, there is now the possibility for technology to be not just disruptive and negative, but positive and uplifting and inspirational. Folks now have more opportunity perhaps to engage in the workforce while staying in their communities than they’ve ever had before, because of the development of apps, because of the connectivity of the internet, because you can stay in your community and still have jobs. And so what Silicon Valley ought to do is to talk about the aspirational possibility of technology to help provide work and opportunity in communities that haven’t had them as a solution: One part of a solution to problems that have existed for the last 50 years where we haven’t made much progress.

Taking On The FCC

I know you’ve been talking a lot about net neutrality and the Lifeline program. Any progress on that? It sounds like there’s a lot of pushback from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the administration.

There’s tons of pushback. [Former FCC chairman] Tom Wheeler was in my office yesterday, and we were talking about doing an event in Silicon Valley to highlight the two basic aspects of net neutrality. One is that it’s critical to keep the internet as an engine for innovation, because you don’t want incumbency–basically determining what price someone is going to pay for access to the internet. And the gutting of net neutrality is basically incumbent protection, it’s supporting monopolistic anti-competitive practices. So the free open internet is not just an issue of free speech. Even some Republicans like [South Dakota Senator John] Thune get [that]. It’s an initiative of fair and open competition.

What about Lifeline?

You know, I’ve written to [new FCC chairman Ajit] Pai about that. That was one of the first things I did when I got to Congress. Here he is going in front of Congress, playing up about how he gets that we need to increase access to people who don’t have broadband. And the first thing he does is curtail a program that’s providing access to rural communities? The type of infrastructure we need in this country is massive investment in broadband technology in all these communities. Because they’re saying we want to stay in our communities, yet we want jobs. So the answer to that is greater connectivity, and it’s why the trip to Appalachia struck such a nerve, because the solution is there. And it’s not a D.C.-imposed solution. It’s not a Silicon Valley solution. These communities are imagining taking part in the future in a way that they’re excited about. We just need to help facilitate their ability to do that.

You think there’s a chance that Pai will allow some of these companies that have been vetted to keep providing Lifeline?

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I hope so–he’s curtailed the program. Were going to keep vigilant and keep making the case for why he needs to expand it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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