- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - James Johnson worked most his life in the coal industry, how people in his hometown of Pikeville have always earned a living; how, until recently, he thought they always would.

But Johnson was laid off as the coal industry collapsed, leaving thousands unemployed with few options.

So he made an unexpected transition: Dressed in a polo shirt Monday, he sat in front of a monitor displaying streams of code at a startup Web design business in Pikeville.

Johnson is one of the first 10 apprentices - mostly unemployed coal workers - hired in March by a company called Bit Source to learn the computer programming trade.

“If this works, it’ll make the world realize we’re not stuck to only one thing; we can do anything,” Johnson said Monday of the region’s transition away from an economy dominated by coal. “I hope that it will be a spark that will ignite a fire in this community.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez visited Bit Source on Monday during Shaping Our Appalachian Region’s second summit in Pikeville. SOAR, launched in 2013 by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, asks traditionally blue-collar coal communities to reimagine themselves in a 21st century economy.

“This community is resilient. It knows how to take a punch,” Perez told the 1,300 people who gathered at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center for the conference. “ZIP code will never determine destiny. We will retool. We are retooling.”

Perez announced $35.5 million in funding is now available to places like eastern Kentucky, where the economy has been devastated by the downturn in the coal and power industries. The grants, part of the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization program, will be awarded to government agencies and community organizations that work to diversify the economy and retrain the workforce.

Though Kentucky communities will have to compete with other similarly depressed areas, Perez said that the state’s SOAR initiative inspired the federal government to create its program, a partnership of the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Jay Williams also spoke at the SOAR conference and compared what’s happening in eastern Kentucky to the collapse of the steel industry in his hometown.

Youngstown, Ohio, was dominated by the steel industry for generations. But then, in 1977, the steel mills closed and the population plummeted. It became a city, he said, no longer able to identify itself with steel, so it identified itself with failure.

He said it began a slow rebound a decade ago by establishing one thing: hope.

That’s what the leaders of the SOAR initiative want to inspire in eastern Kentucky, which has bled half its coal jobs in the past several years.

Perez highlighted the broadband project underway to bring high-speed Internet to even the state’s most remote, impoverished communities.

Rogers said he believes it will transform the mountains of eastern Kentucky into what he describes as “Silicon Holler.”

Bit Source founder Rusty Justice said the idea for the business grew out of the SOAR initiative. About 900 people applied for the apprenticeship program. The company hired 10 - nine from the coal industry and one former journalist - who are now eight weeks into the 22-week training course.

Jim Ratliff, a blaster at a surface mine until he was laid off last year, told Perez at Bit Source that his old coal company called him last week and offered him his job back.

He thought about it, and then declined. He said he saw more hope in computers.

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