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Coal country is ready for tech jobs — if techies will just give them a chance

Recode’s Kara Swisher heads to Louisville, Ky., to talk about the future of work on the latest Recode Decode.

A major theme of the 2016 election that has carried over into 2017 is the future of work — will all the new jobs be on the coasts, or can people struggling in the middle of the country get opportunities in tech, too?

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Kara spoke with a roundtable of guests who are confident that the latter is achievable: Interapt CEO Akur Gopal, Code Louisville founder Rider Rodriguez, TechHire Eastern Kentucky student Crystal Adkins and Tech Jobs Tour CEO Leanne Pittsford.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize they have these passions for other stuff that can translate into tech and then can transform these small towns that are dying,” Adkins said. “It makes me sad to see all these people — they’re so smart — holding onto this idea that coal is going to come back and it’s going to make things so much better for everybody when the fact is, it’s a finite resource and we’ve got to find a way to move away from it.”

Gopal, a Kentucky native who learned growing up that success meant leaving Kentucky, came back to the state to start Interapt after stints in Chicago, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.

“What inspired me was that when I went out, if you will, into the cities, I saw how many people were just like the people I grew up with in Kentucky,” Gopal said. “I realized, it’s not about getting out, it’s about giving people guidance.”

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However, bringing coal country into the future isn’t as simple as saying “you can do it.” The panel agreed that founders and investors in today’s tech hubs — places like San Francisco, New York and Boston — should take a serious look at how Kentuckians might help them build great businesses.

“Every city has its own individual issues,” said Pittsford, who is touring the country this year to encourage tech entrepreneurship in 50 cities. “When we come into places, one of the things is a true pride in where people live. They’re really concerned that we’re coming in and taking jobs away. We’re actually wanting to do the opposite: How do we get companies of all kinds to think about opening offices in other cities, or think about working remotely?”

Adkins said hiring managers need to be part of the solution, too. As a student in a local coding apprenticeship program, she noted that many of her classmates were talented programmers who quickly hit a wall when they tried to take their skills to big companies, because they lacked a traditional college degree.

“We need more people to take chances,” Adkins said. “The biggest thing we’ve seen was, recruiters will call us: ‘Oh, we have to have somebody that has a bachelor’s degree.’ And to know how different that academic programming is to real-world programming, it kind of hurt. I know how to do this! I understand that it’s hard to take that chance. But we have to have people take that chance for us.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

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