why few coal miners became coders and how “learn to code” became an insult
The experiment to turn laid off coal miners into rockstar programmers has been going on for years now with little to show for it except more right wing rage on social media.
One of the more confusing campaigns by the far right against journalists on social media was a flood of people responding to laid off writers notifying their fans that they needed to find a new job with memes and references centered around telling them to learn to code. But far from being worried about these journalists’ futures and trying to suggest an alternative career, the trolls saw this as payback for articles which had the temerity to suggest that teaching laid off coal miners and factory workers to code. No, seriously. They viewed articles covering the efforts to help blue collar workers in need of a new career as condescending insults, linking to them with rage that can only be described as pathological, eager to rejoice over their enemies’ misfortune.
While we can definitely detour into the reasoning behind the unholy rage at people who report things you don’t want to hear or hold opinions with which you disagree, it may be best to leave that to professionals. Instead, we should ask a far more practical question. Is learning to code a viable career path for those who lost their coal mining or factory jobs to machines in what we could call a if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them strategy? It has been tried, but it’s had very limited success rate, churning out a few hundred professional programmers at best despite many tech analysts saying that market needs over a million coders in the coming decade, especially as we keep on automating jobs at an accelerating pace. Was it just a bad idea in the first place?
why suggest that coal miners learn to code?
Let’s consider that to learn how to code, all you need is the desire to do so, a computer, and an internet connection, and a typical American household, even a financially struggling one, has all three. Sure, they might not have the latest and greatest in technology or the fastest internet, but if they can check their email, they can download the tools and follow the mostly text tutorials to get their first scripts and apps running. So you can see why tech enthusiasts looked at a skill set in extremely high demand but with a very low cost of entry, requiring no specific licenses, and could be learned quite literally at the kitchen tables politicians promising to bring back jobs can’t seem to stop talking about, and thought they were really on to something, finding small groups of former coal miners and factory workers who thought this was a good idea as well.
And it’s the fact that tech enthusiasts looking for more coders were giving coal miners the idea to do this and received enough interest to start classes that makes the far right’s incandescent fury at journalists who simply covered the buzz this idea was generating all the more puzzling. Yes, you were telling people that their livelihood was being automated or phased out, but rather than offer them the bad coffee, resume advice that’s so old, it should be exhibited in a museum, and pamphlets for welding and HVAC repair classes that cost thousands of dollars and might eventually get you a job five states over, you were giving them something they could do right now to help themselves with technology they more than likely already had sitting at home. So as far as job training efforts go, this one was hardly the worst.
If at this point you’re ready to scroll down to the comments to write an expletive-filled missive about why I should learn to code if I think it’s such a great idea, I’m afraid it’s too late. I’ve been doing that for the majority of my life. Computer science is just such a versatile field that you can be involved in everything from making sure planes stay in the air, to giving patients who suffered from horrible trauma new limbs they can control with their minds, or just the ability to speak once again, to helping physicists unlock the secrets of the universe and treat cancer while creating a better internet in the process.
Basically, coding is a form of math, and math is a universal language that can be used to both describe and interact with anything, which means that what you can do with code is limited only by your budget and imagination. (And occasionally, the laws of physics.) But with that said, I’ve also seen that it’s absolutely not for everyone, so much so that colleges had to develop tests to understand burnout and dropout rates in their computer science programs, with some trying to change their curricula to make introductory courses easier. And while an intensive boot camp can get your foot in the door, a lot of employers are still demanding college degrees from their new coders. In other words, just teaching coal miners to code is not a panacea.
so, what went wrong with coding classes in coal country?
Unfortunately, there’s been a long history of projects intended to help Appalachia’s perpetually lagging economy failing because despite the seemingly airtight premise, the jobs never actually appear and the people grow more bitter and disillusioned. Why do these projects end up doing little more than stuffing contractors’ pockets? Because they were based on the premise that if they built whatever infrastructure was considered cutting edge, employers would come. The big push to get coal miners coding was based in good faith. Give the region the latest in fiber optic wiring, pay those out of work $10 an hour to learn how to write software, and employers sick of paying six figure entry level wages in coastal hubs should be packing their bags, right?
To borrow a meme, yes, but actually, no. When today’s tech companies started, they started in cities that already had large, educated workforces, great internet connectivity, and customers bringing in enough revenue to need custom technical solutions which are the highest margin bread and butter of the tech industry. And while it’s true that the cost of living there is higher and the coders’ salaries keep rising with demand, there are some major hangups about moving an entire company or opening a satellite branch in Appalachia to save money. Yes, you’re paying a lot less for office space and workers, but you already had fast, reliable internet, and you don’t have that many clients around you because the region’s economy isn’t exactly booming.
Remember that most coders don’t work on new consumer apps or generic business products, they write very specific code for customers, consult on internal projects, or work on tools meant for very specific industries. Large hubs can tolerate a bunch of failing startups because there are well funded venture capitalists gambling on them, the local tech industry is strong, and many of those who worked for failed startups will quickly find a job with their former clients or with other companies looking for consultants or trying to expand their IT departments. Appalachia couldn’t afford for too many new tech companies to fail because with public money trying to pull in new business and few other tech jobs around, failure isn’t an option for their employees. The risks are much greater than the cost savings, and the politics are messy.
In short, companies that specialize in high tech products and services don’t generally expand in regions where they won’t have access to an experienced workforce, have few clients, and end up getting a bad reputation if their expansion fails after being billed as saviors when they move in by local politicians. And while coal miners and factory workers turned coders can find work with their new skills, it’s most likely to be freelance work designing websites or simple products remotely, participating in a more lucrative iteration of the gig economy with no benefits and with heavy competition around cost. While that would be better than nothing, it’s definitely going to be a downgrade from their previous employment.
how tribal politics poisoned good faith
In a way, the quest to create the so-called Silicon Holler and the bitter, toxic mocking of its good intentions by the far right is actually a perfect example of the political dynamics of rural vs. urban America mentioned again and again and again by pundits. Small towns with no plans to handle change lose their primary employers to automation or a restructuring which takes advantage of laws for which representatives elected by the small town’s residents voted, then look for a replacement while the rest of the economy moved on. Then, unable to land new employers who need a different workforce and different infrastructure, and having little success with job training programs and long shots like the miner-to-coder initiatives, they lash out.
They wanted to believe they found a solution to their problems, that they can stay exactly where they’ve been for generations, and that a new, stable career is right around the horizon. But when they discover that reality has other plans, they stumble into a paradox of their own design. They argued for social darwinism and Dickensian politics in which those facing economic setbacks were seen as nothing more than lazy bums cast aside for being useless. Now that they suffered their own series of setbacks over the last three decades with no end in sight, they need to find scapegoats on which to take out their woes because the alternative is admitting that they fell for sketchy voodoo economics promising them untold riches if they gave their money to the wealthy.
Conservative politicians, eager to help redirect blame from their own myopia and abject failures in basic governance, piled on, casting every good faith idea to help turn around the fortunes of a region that’s always been at the mercy of a few large companies and their whims try and build a more diversified portfolio as destined to fail, while urging their constituents to fear and hate their fellow citizens for being better off, implying strongly that their good fortunes were the result of sinister machinations against rural America. No idea you could ever provide will be seen as an honest effort to lift their fortunes, no advice will be seen as genuine or legitimate, and anything other than a promise to bring back their old jobs through some eldritch magic will be thrown back in your face with a disproportionate helping of bile.
In this context, it’s not surprising that coding initiatives were cast not as an attempt to capitalize on the fastest growing job market in the world, but as something hateful and condescending, something those libtarded globalist cuckflakes at the Communist News Network would say right before they burst out in laughter when the cameras were off to make fun of real, hard working Americans who love their country, but somehow manage to hate pretty much everything about it and the majority of its residents in the process. And in this balkanized atmosphere, the angry hordes of far right trolls on 4chan and Twitter turned “learn to code” into “fuck you” in their minds and used it accordingly and with inordinate venom against journalists, the living avatars of very people they were taught are their eternal mortal enemies.