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Coal miners-turned-coders inspire Western Pennsylvania educators

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 9:48 p.m.
Unemployed coal miners and others in need of new careers in once-booming coal towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania have been turning to the Waynesburg-based Mined Minds nonprofit to learn how to code. The nonprofit's cofounders discussed their work and planned expansion into Downtown Pittsburgh during a visit to the region this week.
Mined Minds
Unemployed coal miners and others in need of new careers in once-booming coal towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania have been turning to the Waynesburg-based Mined Minds nonprofit to learn how to code. The nonprofit's cofounders discussed their work and planned expansion into Downtown Pittsburgh during a visit to the region this week.

Rusty Justice and his fellow business partners saw more downsizing ahead for the coal industry two years ago, but they weren't ready to abandon the sector that supported so many in eastern Kentucky.

Instead, the self-professed “unapologetic hillbilly” took on an unconventional venture he hoped could stem the impact of the once-booming coal industry's decline while also turning a profit.

The plan: Build a tech startup in the Appalachian mountains by hiring only laid-off coal miners and teaching them how to write computer code.

“We just wanted to do what we could from the private sector to help create some jobs in our region,” said Justice, a mining engineer who owned an excavation firm and was looking for a way to diversify his holdings. “We had a great respect for the people that we worked with in the industry — their work ethic, their character, their ability to work together as a team.”

Turns out, the hunch that coal miners would make adept computer programmers was correct, Justice, 57, told Pittsburgh-area technology, nonprofit and education leaders during a trip to Western Pennsylvania this week.

Nearly 1,000 people competed for the rural Pikeville, Ky.-based startup's first 10 positions, and nine of those coal-miners-turned-coders remain employees of the fast-growing tech solutions provider, Bit Source . This past fall, named it one of seven small but “world-changing” companies.

“I like it a lot better. It's a whole lot easier,” said Michael Harrison, 38, an original Bit Source employee who first heard about the job from a radio ad four months after he lost his job as an underground mine electrician. “It beats the heck out of breaking your back every day.”

Justice and Harrison shared the early success of Bit Source during a trip that included touring computer science programs at Carnegie Mellon University, meeting with the Pittsburgh Technology Council and giving a presentation at South Fayette High School Theatre in McDonald, Washington County, on Monday night.

The Bit Source representatives were joined by the co-founders of Mind Minds , a Waynesburg-based nonprofit devoted to training workers and to finding jobs for people in the struggling former coal towns of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Despite a strong demand for learning it, coding “still is something that seems alien to a lot of people,” noted Jonathan Graham, 39, who co-founded Mined Minds with Amanda Laucher of Nemacolin, Greene County — initially out of concern for her younger brother, who lost his coal-mining job.

“We thought why not bring opportunities that are in Silicon Valley and bring them into rural America, where there's a loyal, dedicated workforce,” Graham said. “We saw that people, unless they had particular contacts, they just didn't know it was an opportunity.”

Mined Minds isn't limited just to former coal workers, but rather anyone in the region with an interest in gaining employment through their 32-week program, which runs about $12,500, with some financial aid available. The 70 students that have graduated so far have ranged in age from 16 to their 60s, Graham said.

“What they're doing happens to be in sync with what we're teaching our children,” said Aileen Owens, South Fayette School District's director of technology and innovation, who accompanied the Bit Source and Mined Minds representatives on their visit.

South Fayette students start learning coding as early as kindergarten, working their way up to advanced robotics courses, app building and 3-D printing, Owens said. The district plans to roll out a program training all eighth-graders to use Python programming language with support from student-mentors at CMU.

School officials say the idea is that whether or not students go on to careers that specifically require programming skills, they'll benefit from thinking like a computer scientist. Owens said she wants all students to adopt an “innovation mindset” — which he described as “the ability to test new ideas in incubators, or just everyday life.”

“What we're teaching is the problem-solving process of computer science,” Owens said. “We're teaching students to think algorithmically, logically and in multiple layers of abstraction.”

The increased focus on hands-on learning using advanced technology is in line with momentum building among Western Pennsylvania's K-12, community college and higher education leaders.

“Coding is going to be a common skill set in high demand across many sectors,” said Linda Topoleski, vice president for workforce programs at the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development.

The Allegheny Conference is working with local public, nonprofit and industry officials on a new tech-sector hiring program that could involve Mined Minds — which Graham noted is considering opening a new location in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The miners-turned-coders visit served as a sneak preview to Remake Learning Days, a regional celebration of hands-on learning featuring more than 350 events across Western Pennsylvania from May 15 to 26. View the full calendar of events here .

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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