Former coal miners meet in South Fayette to discuss retraining efforts
Rusty Justice stood before the audience in South Fayette High School’s auditorium last week and proudly proclaimed to be an “indigenous hillbilly.”
He takes no issue with the pejorative, though.
For Justice and his team at BitSource, a software and web development company in Pikeville, Ky., “hillbilly” is synonymous with ingenuity. When Justice, a coal mining executive, saw his colleagues being laid off, he knew the creativity, hard work and persistence of coal industry professionals could be put to good use reviving their one-source economy through code.
With his partner, former coal executive Lynn Parish, Justice found 10 out-of-work coal industry professionals and, alongside their lead architect Justin Hall, taught them to code. About 950 people applied, and whittling the team down to 10 proved difficult and emotional, Justice said.
The same problems of mine closures, layoffs and reduced opportunity in the coal industry are affecting populations much closer to Pittsburgh as well. Mined Mines, a coding organization based in Waynesburg, saw the same solution to those problems as Justice and the Bit Source team did.
When Amanda Laucher and her Mined Mines co-founder Jonathan Graham heard the story of Lauchner’s brother, Marvin Laucher, and his struggle to stay employed in coal, they knew code could be the answer. At a holiday barbeque, Marvin explained the layoffs in the struggling mine, and Amanda and Graham, both working as software developers in Chicago, got the idea to train miners and other would-be coders of all backgrounds through coding boot camps.
“In working with people who already had skills in a different industry, they already have the business skills,” Amanda said. “All we need to do is train them on how to write software.”
Two separate organizations, whose members hadn’t met until the May 1 event in South Fayette, found the same solution to the same problem, completely independently of one another. Both organizations have seen success in challenging the stereotype of a typical coal industry professional and reviving struggling economies.
Bit Source has completed local, regional and national projects and has seen their company’s grow. Mined Mines has trained over 70 people, according to Graham, and is opening a Pittsburgh location on Stanwix Street.
“It was a pretty simple transition, really,” said Josh McNett, who completed the Mined Mines program and now works as a coder.
After nine years in the mines, McNett saw a Facebook advertisement for the boot camp and jumped at the opportunity to switch careers. “It’s kind of like being in a coal mine. When you first get down there, it’s a whole new world.”
After his training, he said, he was able to build on what he had learned and make a career of his new skills.
“I look at it as kind of like when you look underneath the hood of a car and you don’t know what you’re looking at,” he said. “That’s almost like when you look at code at first. But when someone starts explaining it, you just build on the basics of what they’re teaching and expand your knowledge.”
This career shift has enabled the Bit Source team and the Mined Mines graduates to contribute their new skills within their communities affected by the shift away from coal in the energy industry.
“It’s all about economic development and remaking lives,” said Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovations in the South Fayette School District, which organized the event.