In Appalachia, Coding Bootcamps That Aim To Retrain Coal Miners Increasingly Show Themselves To Be ‘New Collar’ Grifters

2018-02-06T07:55:13+00:00 January 11th, 2018|

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.

9 Comments

  1. Brian M January 11, 2018 at 11:44 am - Reply

    I’m just skeptical that everyone can and should be a coder. Coding will be increasingly automated and off-shored. It’s like many of the failed promises of the “Education” (said in that wonder George Carlin (RIP) voice) religion promoted by white collar professionals and, yes. grifters.

    Not everyone can and will “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. That does not mean the “left behind” and the low paid service workers on which this economy and society still largely depend should have lives of misery, even if they are mythical Trump voters. Professional social mobility advocates assume at heart that those who do not take advantage of all these “programs” (designed and staffed by said educated elites) just deserve to be left behind, while their successful clients conveniently enough serve as examples for the program funding to continue or be increased.

  2. John Newman January 12, 2018 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    These programs are one scan amoung many that poor people like me can choose from in order to have hope that things will get better. Whether it’s community college, or U. Phoenix, or these new “coder boot camps”.

    These really are “mythical” Trump voters as well. I work in a dead end job, in service work, and while my peers can be jaded and supportive of snake oil salesmen like Trump, most are actually pretty politically neutral, and don’t endorse the full scale discrimination that Trump supporters do. It really bothers me that after 2016, working class men were blamed for the ascendency of Trump. The whole “unwashed masses” message, which does nothing to solve the problem, and this depiction is in itself self fulfilling, making working class people feel guilty because peers voted for a pretty nakidely racist regime. If only people at this level had, oh IDK, Union’s to help politically educate them, and have some basic sense of decency returned to them, given a helping hand by a national union that hasn’t written off huge sections of the working class as “un-unionizable”. Perhaps if workers at this level had even a modicum of hope that their lot can be improved by collective bargaining and political unity, then maybe they wouldn’t buy into a snake oil salesmen like Trump.

    Just a thought…. Great article.

  3. Dianne Foster January 13, 2018 at 1:30 am - Reply

    Another example of “outsourcing” and privatization failures that line the pockets of entrepreneurs who only care about bottom-line.

  4. Henry January 16, 2018 at 11:21 am - Reply

    This is an incredible article. Thank you.

  5. Brian M January 16, 2018 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    John Newman:

    Excellent points, all. I have read that statistically speaking it is not really the “white working class” that elected Trump. More the Midwestern upper middle class. “If you want to find a Trump voter, look for the nearest gated community”.

    What these Trump voters share is a firm belief in Jesus Rand. A toxic combination of heretical American Protestantism and that strange irreligious 19th century Social Darwinism. That, and a fetish for guns. Many of the most fervent Trumpalos at my workplace are avid Ammosexuals.

  6. Colleen January 18, 2018 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    How does an article about the pros and cons of free education turn into a screed against Trump – a man who has been in office for one year 🙁 Take control of your own lives! It shouldn’t matter who is in office.

  7. Veretax February 2, 2018 at 10:07 am - Reply

    This program would have likely predated Obama’s time in office, so why the heck does Trump have anything to do with it? The politics does not belong in a serious article like this.

    I”m a native of West Virginia, and came through College about the time of the Promise Scholarship. I asked these questions then, what good are these scholarships to help get an education doing if the best and brightest must leave the state to find a job to use what they have learned? West Virginia is trying to make things better, the legislature is still too caught up in us vs them to really address the issues. Big mergers have sapped the Chemical and Coal industry, improved technology is also making the number of needed people go down in those. There is some tech growth in a few place, but once you are there, where’s the next thing. I had to leave the state to really better myself.

    IMprovements in education need to accompany help to startup new tech jobs in areas nearby. Many families in Appalachia have been there multiple generations, and do not want to move away from family. The new economy with access to high speed internet in theory will provide some opportunities, but it is still a problem in the rural counties for sure.

  8. Anon February 7, 2018 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    A lot of people seem to think that the article is attacking Trump or Trump voters.

    The author is just describing how the company is attempting to place all of the blame on supposedly delusional trump supporters rather than take responsibility for their broken promises.

    The author isn’t advocating for that position and the author even cautions readers over shifting scrutiny from the company to the students that are being stereotyped and put into boxes that can be easily dismissed because it appeals to some peoples biases against people from the region.

  9. Brian M February 8, 2018 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    There was ONE comment on Trump in the entire range of responses. Mea culpa. That first year has been a doozy, by the way. Toxic looting by the criminal gambling class (not that Obama was all that much better. And the Dems love to urge “education” on the left behind as a panacea)

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