Putting the App In Appalachia
With coal collapsing, Kentucky miners are learning to code “We’ve got a lot of high-skilled hillbillies here”
Before cutbacks took his job, Jim Ratliff worked 14 years in the mines of eastern Kentucky, drilling holes and blasting dynamite to expose the coal that’s powered Appalachian life for more than a century. Today he rolls into an office at 8 a.m., settles down at a small desk, and begins tapping at a keyboard.
In the past year he’s gone from knowing “absolutely zero about computer code” to being a professional programmer. “A lot of people look at us coal miners as uneducated,” says Ratliff, a 38-year-old with a thin goatee and thick arms. “It’s backbreaking work, but there’s engineers and very sophisticated equipment. You work hard and efficiently. And that translates right into coding.”
Ratliff works for Bit Source, a startup in his hometown of Pikeville that builds websites and apps for clients in the area. The company is out to prove that in the hills there can be life after coal. Thousands of local workers are among the 26,000 Americans left unemployed as coal prices fell 75 percent over five years. About 1,000 people applied for Bit Source’s first 10 coding jobs, says cofounder Rusty Justice. All have mining backgrounds. “We’ve got a lot of highskilled hillbillies here,” he says.
Few places are as steeped in coal as Pikeville, a town of 6,900 wedged into a narrow slice of the Big Sandy Valley. Over the years, surrounding Pike County has set state records for millions of tons dug. Since the coal slump, its output has fallen below 7 million tons, a fifth of its peak, and mining jobs have dropped by two-thirds, to fewer than 1,300.
Justice, a fourth-generation Pikeville native, felt the pinch. His excavation and engineering company, Jigsaw Enterprises, lost 70 percent of its customers as big miners such as James River Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, and Arch Coal filed for bankruptcy protection. Justice began looking to diversify.
In 2014 he and business partner M. Lynn Parrish set up Bit Source in an old brick Coca-Cola bottling plant on Pikeville’s northern edge. Last winter they began their recruiting drive, airing radio ads and posting fliers seeking unemployed coal workers interested in becoming programmers. Starting salaries for coders living three hours west of Pikeville in the “Golden Triangle” of Louisville, Cincinnati, and Lexington top out at about $70,000—comparable to miners’ wages. Justice says he figured the transition would be easy enough. “Daggone,” he says. “These are hightech workers that just get dirty.”
Ratliff, who spent years in the mines calculating particle velocities and explosion densities, says that background helped him pass Bit Source’s interviews and tests. Last March he joined the nine other new hires, who’d driven underground shuttle cars or sold heavy mining machinery.
Bit Source is an outlier—Big Sandy Valley isn’t Silicon Valley. Kentucky has the slowest Internet speeds in the U.S., according to a survey by Akamai Technologies. Almost a quarter of the state’s rural populace has no broadband option. Kentucky Wired, a $324 million public-private partnership, is supposed to lay 3,400 miles of fiber-optic cable across Appalachia and the rest of the state by 2018, but the project is already facing a financial shortfall.
Slow change is still change, Ratliff says. During the five months he was out of work, starting in late 2014, he traveled as far as Wyoming looking for a job before deciding he had to return to his three teenage kids. At Bit Source, he’s making half what he made in the mines, but prospects are bright enough that he turned down an offer to return to coal. Ratliff followed his dad into the mines when he was just a few years older than his oldest child is now. Recently, he sat down with the kids to suggest they become programmers. “The coal industry is dying here,” he says. “But we could be the grass roots of something truly special.”
The bottom line A coal-industry excavator has trained out-of-work mining experts as coders and says the company he co-founded is nearing a profit.