What comes to mind when you think about coal country?
Is it a blue collar and mostly white region of America which is solely dependent on the coal industry? Or is it a developing technological center, where workers from diverse backgrounds are re-skilling for coding jobs?
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah correspondent Hasan Minhaj gets the real story of the declining coal mining industry and what Kentucky is doing to get its people back into meaningful work through its TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY) program.
As part of his latest “Brown in Town” report, Minhaj traveled to Paintsville, Kentucky to get the story from the people who were once employed directly or indirectly through the coal industry. And -gasp- he finds a tech company employing newly-trained coders run by native Kentuckian, Ankur Gopal, forcing a hilarious edit to the title sequence and simultaneously challenging stereotypes about “coal country.”
While The Daily Show uses its trademark snark to highlight factual inaccuracies about coal country, it’s from that platform that Minhaj brings attention to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which has created or retained 100,000 new jobs in the past five years and is under threat of funding cuts by the Trump Administration.
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At the ground level, Minhaj finds out that Paintsville residents are unsure about a promised resurrection of the coal industry. “We’ve seen times come where coal jobs are gone and they’ve come back strong, but this time it’s different,” salesman Kevin tells Minhaj.
“So if the glory days are over, what happens now? Are there other solutions?,” Minhaj asks.
Alike most manual labor industries, automation in the coal industry has accelerated the decline in sector employment from its last rebound in the 1980’s. But through assistance from ARC and TEKY, Minhaj reports that workers who were susceptible to the ebbs-and-flows of coal industry hiring are turning to future-proof jobs.
Some of these jobs have come in the tech sector, where companies like Interapt are partnering with Big Sandy Community College to find talented individuals eager to re-skill away from coal sector jobs. This public-private partnership was enabled through funding from TEKY, which in turn is supported by the federally-funded ARC.
Interapt CEO Gopal tells Minhaj that staying close to home and “insourcing” tech jobs to Eastern Kentucky was a logical choice. “This is where we do business. Most of our customers are here and we find talent here,” Gopal says.
Minhaj features the success story of one Interapt employee, Alex Hughes, who formerly had a job installing office equipment in coal mines and had no experience in coding. He tells Minhaj that TEKY gave him the chance to re-skill.
“Coding was something that always fascinated me. The TEKY program took all the roadblocks out of the way and said ‘OK, here’s your opportunity,'” Hughes says.
Minhaj says that even though ARC and TEKY has proven success and Trump promises greater economic assistance to coal country; the White House is attempting to step backwards by taking away ARC’s funding and deregulating the industry to keep what few miners remain underground.
A recent article from Bloomberg highlights the peril of coal country putting its faith in a Trump-enabled rebound. Coal workers in West Virginia are less likely to re-skill for jobs in the growing healthcare industry because they are being told that the jobs are destined to come back as it has done in previous decades. In Kentucky, three straight months of declining coal production and employment is showing that Trump’s campaign promises are not bringing these jobs back.
Hughes says that this misplaced faith has real consequences.
“Even if all the coal jobs came back magically today, it still doesn’t change that we were dependent on a single industry,” Hughes says, “This [holding a piece of coal] is great but it isn’t something that we can depend on because we now see how quickly this can go away.”
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