By Elizabeth Catte
A recent class action lawsuit filed in West Virginia against a retraining program that promised unemployed coal miners a foothold in the tech industry offers a cautionary tale to those banking on the rise of a Silicon Holler. At least 60 plaintiffs in the suit allege that coding bootcamp operators Mined Minds, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization, provided inadequate training and failed to place trainees in paid apprenticeship programs, which many believed would be a cornerstone of the experience.
The complaint, filed in Raleigh County, West Virginia, in December, argues that Mined Minds accepted substantial government funding and grants in West Virginia and Pennsylvania to recruit individuals in high-unemployment areas of Appalachia but did little to deliver hands-on tech experience and mentorship. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Stephen New, told the Register-Herald that he found no evidence that any graduate of the Mined Minds program had ever found a job in the tech industry, apart from two individuals who had been recycled back into the program as trainers.
In communications with the press, Mined Minds placed the blame for its unconvincing results on students. Josh McNett, a graduate of the program who subsequently became a trainer, told KDKA-Pittsburgh that, “the problem is, miners don’t want to come to class because they think the coal mines are coming back. They don’t want retraining.” According to Mined Mines co-founder Amanda Laucher, many enrollees simply had unreasonable expectations for the program, which did not charge students for training. “The vast majority of Americans pay for their education. We are shocked and saddened that [the plaintiffs] would believe they deserve compensation in addition to retraining,” she said.
But plaintiffs say their expectations were grounded and in-line with the promises made by Mined Minds during recruitment. Max Pokropowicz, who completed Mined Mines training in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, said he never expected a high-paying job as the result of his retraining, just “an entry-level job to get me in the field.” Two West Virginia plaintiffs claim Mined Minds promised them paid apprenticeships after completing an initial phase of training, which factored into their decisions to reduce their workload (and wages) at their retail jobs in order to attend the program full-time. Other plaintiffs were unable to complete their training after the Pennsylvania Department of Education ordered Mined Minds to cease and desist operations when it refused to seek an education license from the state.
Should a judge allow the lawsuit to proceed, it could generate important insight into the phenomenon of coding bootcamps, which are too often touted as the economic salvation for poor individuals in areas hard-hit by the decline of blue-collar industries.
Should a judge allow the lawsuit to proceed, it could generate important insight into the phenomenon of coding bootcamps, which are too often touted as the economic salvation for poor individuals in areas hard-hit by the decline of blue-collar industries. In Appalachia, proponents of these mass retraining schemes often speak of the acquisition of tech skills not just as a path to economic uplift but a symbolic transformation as well, in which one signals a desire and willingness to face the 21st century and leave the outdated industries and values of the past behind. Coding bootcamps and similar retraining programs enjoy big boosters, from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which awarded Mined Minds with a $1.7 million grant, to local departments of labor and industry. While some trainees do acquire skills that kickstart a career transformation, the only people guaranteed employment are the individuals who run the often-unregulated bootcamp programs.
Coding bootcamps are part of the lore of the “skills gap” — a theory that suggests workers left behind by globalization and automation should use initiative and re-align their skills to in-demand industries, often in tech services, in order to flourish in the new labor market in which the need for coders is exponentially greater than the need for miners. But according to tech and education writer Audrey Watters, “it’s important to remember that the job market isn’t national; it’s local.” While the potential for remote or tele-work is greater in tech services, coding bootcamp programs in Appalachia aim to train individuals for a regional sector that, to the extent that it does exist, is far from booming.
Without guaranteed jobs, retraining programs remain flawed in their design and there’s little convincing evidence that planners and funders have learned productive lessons from past efforts. In Appalachia, economic development and diversification moves slowly and relocation is difficult. While funders are eager to subsidize training, there’s scant enthusiasm for subsidizing workers to the tune of wages lost to retraining, relocation costs, independent career counselors, or wage differentials, factors that some economists believe would make retraining programs more successful.
Unfortunately, the politically-charged narrative of Appalachia and particularly the tableau of the stubborn, Trump-supporting coal miner means that when such programs do fail, it’s easy to replace scrutiny on said programs with blame on the population they claim to be helping. In November, Valerie Volcovi for Reuters offered a dispatch from West Virginia and Pennsylvania that argued miners, having bought Trump’s promise of a coal comeback, remained uninterested in well-funded training schemes. “Despite a broad consensus about coal’s bleak future, a years-long effort to diversify the economy of this hard-region away from mining is stumbling, with Obama-era jobs retraining classes undersubscribed,” she wrote.
Unfortunately, the politically-charged narrative of Appalachia and particularly the tableau of the stubborn, Trump-supporting coal miner means that when such programs do fail, it’s easy to replace scrutiny on said programs with blame on the population they claim to be helping.
What we now know by virtue of the lawsuit is that much of the funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and the Appalachian Regional Commission cited in Volcovi’s article went to Mined Minds, a program without appropriate licensing, unendorsed by local education partners, and presumably with a trail of disappointed graduates not inclined to recommend the program to others.
Coding bootcamps, both within and outside of Appalachia, are part of what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls the ecosystem of “Lower Ed.” The foundation of this ecosystem is the for-profit college, but McMillan Cottom has written, “When we offer more credentials in lieu of a stronger social contract, it is Lower Ed. When we ask for social insurance and get workforce training, it is Lower Ed.” This makes coding bootcamps, both reputable and disreputable ones, a symptom of a transformation in which workers assume more and more economic risk to sustain employment, be it a loan for a $60,000 associate’s degree from a for-profit college or quitting a part-time job to attend a retraining program full-time.
It’s tempting to suggest that a solution to the difficulties Mined Minds trainees experienced might be greater regulation of retraining programs. To the extent that these organizations receive government funding and accept donations from community partners, more regulation would not be a bad idea. But we can be bolder, too, and try to invest in people beyond their value to industries that might or might not flourish in the region. We can support their access to higher wages in, for example, retail and hospitality. We can fight to further detach health insurance from employment. We can work to reduce childcare costs that often prevent people from exploring other employment or education options. Investing in coding programs won’t save Appalachia, but investing in people might.
Elizabeth Catte is a writer and historian from East Tennessee and is the author of the forthcoming What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, February 2018). She holds a PhD in public history and is the co-owner of Passel, a historical consulting and community development firm.
Banner photo by Jack Korn via U.S. National Archives.