From coal to coding - retraining the nation's miners - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

From coal to coding - retraining the nation's miners

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CLENDENINE, W. Va. -- President Trump ran on the promise of restoring the coal industry.  While he has started to roll back Obama-era regulations, experts say the rise of natural gas and automation will prevent coal jobs from coming back. 

But there's a growing effort to bring a brand new industry to Appalachia - computer coding. Former miners are heading to the classroom using many of the same skills they used underground.

In Boone County, West Virginia, coal mining has provided work for seven generations of Billy Jack Buzzard's family.

"When did you become a coal miner?" a reporter asks. "When I was 18."  "Right out of school?"  "Yes, Ma'am."
Right out of high school?

Three years ago, Buzzard lost his job at this coal plant. "It was horrible. I got laid off, lost my vehicle, lost my house. There was no plan B."

But the 29-year-old found one in June, swapping his hard hat for a laptop.

He was accepted into a free training program called "Mined Minds" that teaches former coal miners to become computer coders, creating apps, websites, and games. 

Founder Amanda Laucher started the non-profit in Pennsylvania in 2015 because her younger brother was worried about losing his coal mining job.

"In just a few months we realized they're really good. They're going off and learning stuff we haven't even done yet," Laucher said.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin invited the group to his state.

"We saw that, called them, and said would you come to our jobs fair?" Manchin said. 

Manchin helped Mined Minds establish headquarters near West Virginia's capital with federal grants. 

"Do you think coding is a game changer in West Virginia?"
"I think it gives us a chance to diversify ourselves and be something people think we are not," Manchin said.

Manchin points out modern mining and coding require similar skills, especially in math and problem solving.

"We're not a bunch of idiots out here. We're not a bunch of hillbillies and hill jacks. There are some very smart individuals here."

Buzzard's ultimate goal is to help turn his home from coal country to code country.

So far, 80 people have received a computer coding certificate from Mined Mines. The program has sparked a new initiative to open coding boot camps across the state.

West Virginia plans to have six camps open by early next year.

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