PIKEVILLE – Nearly an hour’s drive from his home in Johnson County, Jim Ratliff is nestled in a corner behind one of dozens of computer screens inside a former Coca-Cola plant renovated to house a software and web development firm called Bit Source.
For nearly 15 years, Ratliff worked as a coal miner and blaster in Eastern Kentucky, but he’s been with Bit Source since March, training to do something that one nationally known businessman and politician said was virtually impossible.
“You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code,” exclaimed former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg before an audience at the 2014 Bloomberg Energy Summit. “I don’t know how to break it to you … but no.”
Bloomberg was referring to computer coding, a system of writing commands for computers and computer programs. And Ratliff says he’s proud to say that today he and his coworkers have proven Bloomberg — and much of the world outside of Eastern Kentucky — dead wrong.
In August, Ratliff transitioned from an intern-in-training to a full-time coder for Bit Source. He’s now writing code and developing websites, a far cry from the coal mines where he once made his living.
Like many miners in the region, Ratliff’s pedigree in the industry goes back decades, three generations in his case. He chuckles as he mentions the 180-degree turn his life and career path have taken in the last six months.
“I’ve always been used to working outside, moving, using my back,” he says, smiling. “Now, I get the opportunity to use my intellect to make a living.”
In early 2015, Ratliff was one of 10 people chosen from nearly 900 applicants to begin training to work for Bit Source. The company specializes in developing websites, mobile applications, and games.
Bit Source was founded in 2014 by Pikeville businessmen Charles “Rusty” Justice and M. Lynn Parrish, who developed the idea after attending a SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) sponsored fact-finding trip to Awesome Inc., a computer-coding incubator in Lexington.
Justice and Parrish founded Bit Source as an effort to introduce a new tech sector to Eastern Kentucky; one that features coding and programming jobs that can ultimately pay wages that approach, and sometimes match and exceed, some coal-industry wages.
The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP) — the region’s workforce development organization and staff of the Eastern Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board—partnered with Justice and Parrish to help recruit potential coding interns to fill the firm’s inaugural training cohort.
EKCEP would then use National Emergency Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Labor through its Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) initiative — all under the auspices of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) — to cover the interns’ training wages for their participation in Bit Source’s immersive, 22-week, in-house training program.
Training for Ratliff and his co-workers began in March and ended on August 17, at which point they began working as full-time coders at the firm.
For Ratliff, he says it’s sometimes bizarre to help create websites when, prior to joining Bit Source, he had barely browsed the Web.
“Up until this, I would look for football news and Ranger bass boats — that was what I was experienced with on the Internet,” he says.
But Ratliff says that initial inexperience has been no hindrance. In fact, his position at Bit Source actually has a lot in common with his former career in the coal industry.
“We’re problem solvers. We solve problems through coding and critical thinking,” he explains. “I think one of the big misconceptions about coal miners is that we’re given up on as being intellectually inferior.
“When your life depends on the decisions you make, you don’t last long if you don’t make good decisions and have a real refined critical-thinking process,” he continues.
Ratliff says his problem-solving skills were put to the test immediately after his layoff, when he couldn’t find new coal-related employment anywhere close to home. After visiting with Jennifer Hampton, an expert career advisor at the Big Sandy Area Community Action Program, there first appeared to be only one option for him.
“I was facing relocation,” Ratliff remembers. “I had actually already been issued my blasting license for the state of Wyoming. I was that close to leaving Kentucky.”
Relocation was tough decision for Ratliff, whose three children would have remained in Eastern Kentucky to finish out their high school careers as he departed for new work.
“That was just a problem for me,” he says. “I would have missed my children’s lives.”
In the weeks before he was set to move out of state, Ratliff says he heard a radio advertisement recruiting dislocated coal industry workers for Bit Source. Though he didn’t think much of it at first, Hampton also relayed the opportunity to him, which encouraged him to give it a shot.
Looking back, Ratliff says he realizes how lucky he’s been to be part of the first wave of a new industry that could change the face and economy of Eastern Kentucky. He says he has never been prouder to be sitting with the handful of people he now calls his co-workers.
“I would have thought at first that maybe 60 percent of us would have made it and 40 percent would have quit,” he says. “The 10 people that showed up on the 16th of March are still sitting in there, so, I’m really proud.
“I just want to stress how thankful I am for this opportunity and how much it means for our area for these programs to exist and to continue and to be utilized,” Ratliff continues. “It’s big thing to utilize what resources are available to us.”