HAZARD — The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded $2.75 million to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP). This money was allocated to help fund the development of a new technology ecosystem in Eastern Kentucky.
The grant comes through 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. EKCEP is among 29 organizations to benefit from this funding.
“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 TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY) initiative will receive funding through ARC’s POWER grant. TEKY is designed to 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.”
The development of a strong technology workforce that is fueled by 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.”
Whitehead believes that technology has now brought rural areas into the competitive world economy by opening up easy pathways of communication and service.
“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 is the federal co-chair for ARC. He believes the POWER grant holds the potential to create outstanding opportunities.
“Appalachia is the next great investment opportunity in America,” Gohl said.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.