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Couple turns former miners into workers in region's growing tech sector

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Amanda Laucher (left) and Jonathan Graham, with computer science backgrounds, were discouarged when they visited Laucher's home in Waynesburg last year and saw coal miners being laid off in droves with no hope of work in sight.  They decided they could teach these folks to write computer code and have launched a coding camp in downtown Waynesburg as well as a consulting firm that is employing several recent graduates doing coding work for local businesses and large out of town firms that outsource such work.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Amanda Laucher (left) and Jonathan Graham, with computer science backgrounds, were discouarged when they visited Laucher's home in Waynesburg last year and saw coal miners being laid off in droves with no hope of work in sight. They decided they could teach these folks to write computer code and have launched a coding camp in downtown Waynesburg as well as a consulting firm that is employing several recent graduates doing coding work for local businesses and large out of town firms that outsource such work.

They are the unlikeliest students in the most unconventional setting.

But just outside Waynesburg, in a carriage house in the heart of Greene County's coal country, seven students — many former miners — stare intently at their screens as their teacher talks about the complexities of computer coding, the instructions that direct a computer to perform a specific task.

It's a world apart from their former working lives, but every student grasps the value of their instructor's words.

The paint was barely dry in the renovated house of their 183-year-old Greene County estate when transplanted Chicago residents Amanda Laucher and her husband Jonathan Graham began offering coding classes through a partnership between their nonprofit, Mined Minds, and the Community College of Allegheny County.

Laucher, 35, a Greene County native, and Graham, 38, who has a doctorate in chemistry and a passion for computer coding, came to Pennsylvania on a mission to transform displaced miners and other workers into viable candidates for jobs in the region's growing high-tech sector.

Scores of coding camps designed to teach the fundamentals of the job have sprung up around the country. Most of them are in major cities near tech hubs, often charging up to $20,000 for three to five months of training.

This one is 70 miles south of Pittsburgh in a rural county with only 37,838 residents and an unemployment rate near 8 percent. The cost of the four-month program, including a laptop, is $8,000.

But most of the students are attending at little or no cost, thanks to a partnership with Pennsylvania's CareerLink program that offers support to retrain eligible workers.

“If a student needs $20,000 to attend a boot camp, it seems like a situation where the rich get richer and those who need to attend it can't go,” Laucher said.

Laucher, who spent a decade traveling the world as a software developer, thought she'd landed her dream job when she began working in Chicago and bought a condominium on the city's fabled Lake Shore Drive two years ago.

Things changed dramatically after she and Graham visited her home last year and talked with her brother Marvin.

The 33-year-old father of three spent the last five years working in the Enlow Fork coal mine.

The work was dangerous, but his annual wages — just under $100,000 — made it worthwhile. By last spring, his outlook appeared bleak.

“I'd squeezed through two layoffs, but I could see what was coming and I was worried,” he said. “Then Jonathan said, ‘I could teach you to write code.' ”

It was a turning point for everyone.

“Pretty much every generation in our family has been in the mines,” Amanda Laucher said. “My great-grandfather was killed in the Nemacolin mine fire.”

Soon, Laucher and Graham, who kept their Chicago jobs, were commuting back to Greene County on weekends to tutor Marvin Laucher and a small group of friends. As interest grew, the couple decided to move back to Pennsylvania.

Today, Marvin Laucher is teaching at the coding camp and writing code for clients his sister and brother-in-law have brought in through their consulting firm. He's not earning what he made in the mines, but it's a living with a future, he said.

David Kosbie, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's school of computer science, said there is a need for the kind of hands-on training coding camps provide. He likens coders' jobs to those of paralegals working in law firms.

Computer scientists solve big problems for companies such as Google and Amazon, but coders put theory into practice.

It's not simple, nor is it something anyone can learn, Kosbie warned.

In a small office just off the Mined Minds classroom, four recent boot camp grads work on code for various clients who have tapped the nonprofit for work ranging from websites and inventory systems to court record updates.

They can vouch for Kosbie's warnings.

Heather Schockney, 39, a homeschooling mother and caregiver from Masontown, said she struggled to learn coding.

“There were times I thought I'd never be able to do it. I was studying 40 to 50 hours a week. It was literally sun up to sundown,” she said.

Ami Gatts, director of the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, said the program has been a boost for the area because it broadens the skill set of available workers.

“This is great for Greene County. They need something other than coal and coal supply-chain jobs,” she said, recounting how recent downturns in the coal industry harmed the local economy.

“We were looking at 1,700 layoffs in the mines and for every one of those jobs, we stood to lose another four to six jobs in the related supply-chain industry,” Gatts said.

Brian Hannon, director of the Center for Professional Development at Community College of Allegheny County, said he jumped at the opportunity to partner with Mined Minds after hearing about the success of a similar program in the coalfields of Kentucky.

The community college affiliation allows students to tap into the state's CareerLink funding and means participants can walk away with a certificate and continuing education credits.

Word about the local camp has spread to nearby states.

Laucher said officials in West Virginia, one of the states most hard hit by the loss of mining jobs, has asked the nonprofit to launch a coding camp in Charlestown later this year.

“There's a big market for these people. Once they learn to code, it becomes a stackable skill. They learn more and more and become more employable,” Gatts said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com

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