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The Hills Go High Tech

An American community finding its way in the new digital economy
Arlie R. Hochschild

Arlie Hochschild

Traveling through eastern Kentucky, American sociologist Arlie Hothschild, “who studies work, family and the American right,”  chronicles the changes in work patterns:

Ankur Gopal, a University of Illinois graduate from Owensboro, Ky., started Interapt in his basement in Louisville in 2011, when he was 35. He is now renovating an empty warehouse in a run-down part of the city, investing nearly $4 million and creating jobs in the process. “With millions of U.S. tech jobs out there,” Mr. Gopal said, “we could help transform eastern Kentucky. Well, hey — Middle America.”

Mr. Gopal is at the forefront of a new movement to bring money and jobs from the coastal capitals of high tech to a discouraged, outsource-whipped Middle America. Ro Khanna, the Democratic representative from California whose district includes Apple, Intel, LinkedIn and Yahoo, was among the first politicians to float the idea of Silicon Valley venturing inland. “Why outsource coding jobs to Bangalore when we can insource jobs to eastern Kentucky, poor in jobs but rich in work ethic, and every one I.T. job brings four or five other jobs with it?” he said.

Ankur Gopal

Ankur Gopal

Why indeed? When simple ideas do not occur to complex people, there is usually a reason:

Then there were the stereotypes held by the companies to which Interapt was pitching its graduates; many potential employers were skeptical of the apprenticeship model. As Ervin Dimeny, the former commissioner of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet’s Department of Workplace Standards, explained to me: “We think of apprenticeship as a way to certify 19th-century metalworkers. Or we associate it with boring high school shop class. We need to re-envision apprenticeships as passports to respectable middle-class careers.”

Worse, some saw rural Kentuckians as dubious recruits — tooth-free, grinning, moonshine-drinking hillbillies. “It’s a terrible myth,” an Interapt administrator who is the daughter of an unemployed Pikeville coal miner told me. “A hillbilly can do anything. Out in the hollows, you can’t call in specialists; you fix that stalled truck, that leaky roof, that broken radio yourself.” It’s the “car heads” — who can fix anything under a hood — who turn out to be inspired app developers, a recruiter told me. Those car heads include women too, who made up about a third of the first class. Arlie Hochschild, “The Coders of Kentucky” at The New York Times

At present, says Hochschild, Ankur Gopal and Interapt are sourcing as many new hillbillies as they can find: “For now, there is so much demand for I.T. workers — 10,000 estimated openings by 2020 in the Louisville metro area alone — that Mr. Gopal is reaching out to new groups. “We’re talking with the Department of Defense about a 16-week, eight-hour-a-day coding training program for vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to Fort Knox,” he said.”

Hothschild may be battling a trend in academic thinking. From the comments:

“Out in the hollows, you can’t call in specialists; you fix that stalled truck, that leaky roof, that broken radio yourself.”

Thank you!! This might be the first time I have ever read any outside press on the region that highlights the tremendous strengths and smarts of the holler (my family has lived in WV since the 1700s). Thank you for trying to help change the narrative. Stereotypes have strongly negatively affected both how outsiders perceive Appalachians and how we perceive ourselves. I’d like see the word “hillbilly” banned from use by any outsiders (it’s generally used a slur) but this is great start.

No one familiar with an actual history of North America should doubt the resilience of rural and frontier people.

Kentuckian Ankur Gopal offers a touching TED talk at Palo Alto on how his grandmother joined the digital revolution and never looked back:

Hat tip: Eric Holloway

See also: Robogeddon!! Pause. Wait. This just in: AI is NOT killing all our jobs

The Hills Go High Tech