With coal mining at a 35-year low, coal regions have been struggling with job losses and stagnant local economies. One new venture in Kentucky offers a solution: teaching coal miners how to code.
It started three years ago when Rusty Justice and M. Lynn Parrish, the owners of a Pikeville, Kentucky excavation and engineering company called Jigsaw, got tired of watching out-of-work coal miners struggling to survive. So they decided to start a new business—a software development company that would hire former miners in eastern Kentucky, first teaching them how to code.
Called Bit Source, the startup aims to help revitalize the local economy while addressing what Justice calls “a brain drain” in the area, as unemployed residents move away. The company now employs nine ex-miners.
“We wanted a place-based solution to the problem,” says Justice.
Justice and Parrish spent a while in 2013 looking for the most promising business that could both train and employ miners and become a profitable, going concern. Eventually they pinpointed software development as an industry with the potential to accomplish both goals. Coal mining is a highly technical field that relies more on engineering smarts than on physical labor, so the workforce is primed for new technical skills.
The pair recruited Justin Hall, a long-time coder in the area, and got to work figuring out how to build a business.
Hiring the right people would be tricky, they figured, since the whole point was to recruit folks with no previous coding experience whatsoever. Working with the local workforce development agency, they put together a profile describing the key attributes of a software developer—interest in the process, a logical thinking style and the ability to spend many hours sitting at a computer screen, churning out code. “We wanted to hire people who didn’t have the skills, but had the aptitude,” says Justice.
When they got down to the task of accepting applications in 2014, they were flooded with interested candidates—950 applications for 11 slots. They pre-screened applicants, winnowing down the list with such questions as whether or not applicants used social media. Then they tested 60 people, interviewing 30 of them and offering jobs to 11, some of them former miners with 20 years experience in the mines. (One didn’t sign on and another left for a different opportunity after starting).
The 22-week training was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Employees received a salary during that time and the company paid $3 for every $1 of wage subsidy, according to Justice. “It was a bit of an investment on our part,” he says. In August, 2014, they got their first client.
The focus, for now, is on building up a portfolio of clients with an eye toward scaling the company and providing more jobs. “We do anything with code,” says Justice.
That’s included assignments such as web site development for a local TV station and designing a library management system for a client in northern California.
One selling point: Because employees are being trained in the most current methodologies, “They don’t have any bad habits to get over,” says Justice.
The partners plan to ramp up their current employees’ skill level before making any more hires. But so far, says Justice, his newbie coders have been doing just fine. He points to one employee, a former miner who used to run a shuttle car underground that recently attended a lunch in New York City about agile software development. “He fit right in,” says Justice.
Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. A version of this article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.