HAZARD – The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) has announced an award of $2.75 million to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP) that will help fund the development of a new technology ecosystem in Eastern Kentucky.
EKCEP was one of 29 organizations announced on Wednesday to receive funding through the ARC’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce Revitalization (POWER) Initiative to stimulate economic growth in communities adversely affected by the downturn in the coal industry. Eastern Kentucky’s economy continues to experience economic decline and high rates of unemployment following the collapse of the regional coal economy that to date has resulted in the loss of more than 10,000 coal jobs.
“The projects and awards we are here to celebrate today help communities persevere and flourish as they deal with the challenges presented by the coal economy,” said Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development. “POWER invests in jobs and workers, and develops and implements strategies and projects that can help transform these respective regions, states, and our nation.”
The POWER funding awarded to EKCEP will provide crucial support for the TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY) initiative – a public/private partnership designed to develop a technology ecosystem in the region that will put Eastern Kentucky workers on a fast track to become computer coders. EKCEP serves as the regional lead in the White House’s designation of Eastern Kentucky as a national TechHire community, with partners including Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), Big Sandy Community and Technical College, and the Louisville-based technology firm Interapt.
“I’m very excited about what this funding is going to allow us to,” said EKCEP Executive Director Jeff Whitehead. “We don’t want to retrain former coal industry workers and other dislocated workers and then just wish them well. We’re choosing to focus on the possibilities of new and emerging sectors being forged in our region. The momentum created by SOAR and the motivation of leaders like Congressman Hal Rogers have led us to move information technology (IT) to the top of our main sectors of emphasis in Eastern Kentucky.”
As a TEKY partner, Interapt – a leader in mobile app, healthcare, and manufacturing technology solutions – will steer an innovative and industry-led work-based learning internship opportunity for up to 200 people over the next three years at the Paintsville campus of Big Sandy Communtiy and Technical College. Those selected to participate will intern with Interapt’s new Eastern Kentucky division in an immersive, accelerated way to become computer coders using a nationally recognized tech curriculum from Eleven Fifty Academy of Indianapolis, In.
The first cohort of 50 people will begin a 33-week internship cycle on Sept. 6. Those who complete the cycle will be eligible for employment with Interapt as full-time coders and will help write the code that powers the company’s highly successful mobile-based products for the healthcare and manufacturing industries.
In addition to providing a catalyst for Interapt’s expansion into Eastern Kentucky, the emergence of a new technology sector and a crop of newly trained tech workers can also benefit the region’s established businesses, Whitehead said, especially those that may be outsourcing IT services to other countries.
“We feel strongly that other companies in our region, like banks and hospitals, will also want to utilize the new, highly skilled tech talent created by TEKY to insource IT work back into our region that is often outsourced to other countries,” Whitehead said. “We’re going to stock this new tech ecosystem with our own workers in a way that has never been possible before.”
Preparing Eastern Kentucky’s workforce to participate in the digital economy is a “game changer” for the region, Whitehead added. And through technology, the geography and rural nature of Appalachia that were once considered barriers to development can now be considered attractions.
“Through technology, we are not isolated anymore,” Whitehead said. “If people can work for American companies from across the globe, they can work for these companies from Appalachia. We just have to re-envision what’s possible.
“In partnership with Interapt, Big Sandy Community and Technical College, and SOAR—and now with the Appalachian Regional Commission—we are going to pioneer a tech revolution in Eastern Kentucky that’s going to change the future of our region for decades to come.”
Earl Gohl, federal co-chair for ARC, said the awards announced Wednesday will leverage approximately $57 million in additional investment throughout Appalachia, and take the region one step closer to becoming a leader in sectors like technology, agriculture, and healthcare.
“Appalachia is the next great investment opportunity in America,” Gohl said.