Washington, D.C. – A cohort of Eastern Kentucky innovators were recently lauded during the White House’s TechHire Gathering and Community Summit.
Including four Eastern Kentucky TechHire partners, the summit brought together more than 200 others from 30 cities and states from across the nation also designated by the White House as TechHire communities. Representing East Kentucky TechHire were: Michael Cornett, Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc. director of agency expansion; Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Director Jared Arnett; Kelli Hall, director of Workforce Solutions with Big Sandy Community and Technical College; and Justin Hall, president of Bit Source in Pikeville.
Announced in March, the White House’s TechHire initiative aims to develop fast-track training and employment opportunities through a multi-sector effort designed to meet the national demand to fill open technology jobs. This includes coding bootcamps, online courses, and other instruction and training that can be completed in just a few months in lieu of a two- or four-year degree.
Rural Eastern Kentucky, which has for decades relied on a natural resource-based economy centering around coal, was selected as one of the initial 21 TechHire communities, and one of only two rural areas to receive the designation. More communities have since been added, and the total now stands at 31.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez recognized the Eastern Kentucky TechHire partners in his remarks at the Nov. 17 event in Baltimore, and spoke at length about the early successes and ongoing work toward developing a new technology sector in the region.
Perez also praised the public/private collaboration and partnership between EKCEP and Bit Source, the region’s first web development firm, which trained an initial cohort of 10 people to become web developers and coders—including nine former coal industry workers. EKCEP provided recruitment assistance and covered the trainees’ full wages during a 22-week internship earlier this year. All 10 are now full employees at the firm, and are actively working on projects for various clients.
“These people … now see they have a future going from coal to coding,” Perez said.
Perez also spoke of his visit to Bit Source in May this year, and being inspired by the former coal workers there who are transitioning into a new career in technology. This, he said, is a powerful example to those workers’ children—and others in the region—that technology careers aren’t just a pipe dream in the mountains.
“We can do anything we put our minds to … whether that’s in Baltimore or Eastern Kentucky,” he said, adding that geography should not be a determining factor in building a workforce to meet the nation’s demand for technology jobs, which currently includes 500,000 open positions across the country.
“We cannot be two Eastern Kentuckys … we cannot be two of anything,” Perez added. “We are one. We succeed when we all succeed. Zip code does not determine destiny.”
Also announced at the event, Eastern Kentucky’s TechHire community now has access to $100 million in federal grants to create and expand a framework to train workers for the technology sectors and provide connections to technology job opportunities.
As the lead organization for Eastern Kentucky’s White House TechHire designation, EKCEP will apply for such funding to advance its partnerships and scale up a long-term vision for a regional technology ecosystem. This vision is being guided and developed in partnership with leading Louisville tech entrepreneur Ankur Gopal and his company, Interapt.
Interapt, a Google Glass Certified Partner that has developed technology-driven applications for Kentucky business giants such as Humana and Yum! Brands, began working with EKCEP and SOAR in July after a unanimous vote of approval by the SOAR Executive Committee, including U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.
In addition to opportunities to meet with officials involved with TechHire at the federal level—including U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith; Ben Siegel, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor; and Ryan Burke with the White House’s National Economic Council—Eastern Kentucky TechHire members were provided an opportunity to report to all attending TechHire communities on dramatically scaling up its regional vision based on early innovation already underway through the efforts of TechHire partners SOAR, EKCEP, Bit Source, and Big Sandy Community and Technical College.
In remarks to the group, EKCEP’s Michael Cornett cited the creation of a thriving technology ecosystem in Argentina, in spite of conditions of extreme poverty and unemployment, as proof positive that such a vision can also be achieved in Eastern Kentucky—particularly with the existing public/private partnerships already in place through the region’s TechHire designation.
“There, it took just one visionary tech entrepreneur 15 years ago to start expanding and creating what’s now a large web of interconnected tech businesses that has created 80,000 tech jobs, and generates a $1 billion-dollar annual economic impact,” Cornett said. “If that can happen in Argentina, why not Eastern Kentucky?”