Goodbye coal, hello coding: Program pays students to learn, then employs them

TechHire Eastern Kentucky casts a wide net for its applicants, trying to ensure a diverse applicant pool, at regional events. At right is TEKY student Crystal Adkins of Pikeville.
TechHire Eastern Kentucky casts a wide net for its applicants, trying to ensure a diverse applicant pool, at regional events. At right is TEKY student Crystal Adkins of Pikeville. Photo provided

At first glance, it sounds like a dream: Getting paid to learn the latest in high-tech computer skills and then working for the company that’s heading up the program — all without leaving the Kentucky mountains.

A program at the Paintsville branch of the Big Sandy Community College is teaching a select group of Eastern Kentuckians high-end computer skills. The students — 55 were selected for the first class out of an applicant pool of 850 — are in a rigorous program in which they are paid to learn, will get paid internships and will then work for Interapt, a high-tech Louisville company.

The upside is that the program will continue; the downside is that the number of students in the program is down to 36 after just two months.

Still, for those who can complete the rigorous training, there’s a chance to stay in the mountains and make a living with Interapt, started by Owensboro native Ankur Gopal.

The program, formally called Interapt TechHire East Kentucky — TEKY for short — is a public/private partnership designed to develop a technology system to put Eastern Kentucky workers on their way to becoming computer coders.

In August, the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program was awarded $2.75 million for the technology project through the Appalachian Regional Commission. Partners besides Interapt include Shaping Our Appalachian Region — known as SOAR — and the community and technical college system. The money came from an Obama administration project called TechHire, which distributed funds into programs across the nation, noting that there is a large and growing unmet demand for tech workers, and that, with tech jobs paying 1 1/2 times the average wage of a private-sector job, it’s “a pathway to the middle class.”

The project is supported by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc., which provides funding primarily through two Coal Mining and Community Impact National Emergency Grants.

Gopal said he was contacted by Jeff Whitehead, director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program; U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset; and retired Lexington businessman Jim Host, representing SOAR, which serves 54 counties in southeastern and Eastern Kentucky.

The question Gopal was asked was whether he could create an opportunity for potential employees in their home areas.

After doing some research around the region, Gopal agreed to the establishment of the program.

From the 850 applicants for the first program, 49 students were chosen, plus six advanced students to be teaching assistants.

The application process cast a wide net, seeking diversity, program director Matthew McClellan said. Of the initial 850 applicants, more than 400 completed the first set of online interviews, 300 were invited for a second set of interviews, and then 180 for the next round.

The qualifications needed were not a snap: Applicants had to know how to work simple mathematical equations that include operator precedence; the associative, commutative and distributive properties; and simple functions such as f(x) = x +3. Those selected spend between six and eight hours in class a day, five days a week, except for holidays.

Students get two hours of homework each night.

Interns are expected not to miss class, which means being on campus at Paintsville every day. They are paid $400 a week to learn full-time; those who progress successfully through the first 20-week segment of the internship then qualify for an extended internship of as much as16 weeks and full-time internship pay of no less than $10 an hour.

“You can’t learn if you’re worried about where your daughter’s next meal is coming from,” Gopal said. “We can’t expect successes if people are thinking like that.”

Those who finish the 20-week initial internship program and the four-month extended internship will be hired as employees of Interapt.

“We kept the first cohort small so we could keep it controlled,” Gopal said.

Those who don’t make the grade for performance might still be in line for opportunities with other employers, he said.

“We don’t want to just let people go, because that is not going to help anyone,” he said.

“It’s not easy,” Gopal said. “It’s not a government program. This is real life. You really want a job in this, you’ve got to do this. We believe in immersion. They need to ask questions, they need to work with peers, they need to say to someone, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’”

McClellan said one student, a paramedic helping with wildfires, “was here at 8:30 in the morning, ready for class.”

“People have to love coding,” McClellan said. “Those who are really good at it, it’s almost not like a job to them, ... and a lot of people, that’s now what they want to do.”

One student who really loves coding is Crystal Adkins. Her husband and their two children were regrouping at his parents’ home in Pikeville after economic setbacks in Louisville when Adkins heard a radio ad about the Interapt program.

She had an associate’s degree in information security and network administration from Jefferson Community and Technical College, and she was intrigued.

Now she loves coding. She drives an hour each way from her home to the Paintsville campus for the chance at a technology job.

“It’s just been so hard to find some sort of tech-oriented work here,” Adkins said. “I feel obligated to stay in the region to make sure these kinds of jobs stay. ... We need the jobs here, so there are other people who can benefit from this.”

Adkins admits that the drive is exhausting some weeks, but she is encouraged to know that “soon I’ll be able to work from home, and I’ll be able to support our family financially. ... In the end, it’s going to be worth it.”

Alex Brashear of Harold in Floyd County, another student in the program, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Pikeville, but he wanted to be near family.

“I had a hard time finding a job,” Brashear said. “The program is challenging, but at the same time it’s also very rewarding. It’s a lot to learn, a lot to take in in a short period of time.”

Another group will probably start in 2017, Gopal said. Applications are likely to open in early 2017.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman