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Appalachians See Fraud, Condescension in ‘Coal to Coding’ Retraining Promise

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Two years after buying into a shiny new non-profit’s promise to train them in stable and lucrative computer jobs that would turn “coal country into coding country,” residents of Appalachia are suing for fraud—but also seething at the arrogant condescension with which outsiders all too often treat them.

When an organization called Mined Minds came to the economically hard-hit region offering to pay residents to learn coding, then help them find work in the field, people like 45-year old Stephanie Frame and her daughter Tori, 23, signed up eagerly, viewing the company as heaven-sent to rescue them from the dead-end despair of communities trapped in the shadow of dying coal mines, writes the New York Times.

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And Frame “had every reason to believe” in the company, writes the Times: it had already been hired by the U.S. National Guard to teach coding to recruits, had received “glowing coverage” on the CBS Evening News, and had been personally invited into the state by avidly pro-coal Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV).

Trusting to these signs of a stable entity genuinely committed to their welfare, many West Virginians left jobs (some of them in mining) or dropped out of school. They bought the promise of training that would lead, in the words of one 29-year-old recruit interviewed by the Times, to “something that would make me a worthwhile member of society.”

Founded in 2015 by then Chicago-based tech consultants Amanda Laucher and her husband Jonathan Graham, Mined Minds took root when Laucher’s coal miner brother lost his job in southwest Pennsylvania, where they had both grown up. Apparently anxious to help her sibling, Laucher and her husband pulled up stakes and moved back home.

At first, writes the Times, Mined Minds seemed to have thought through a detailed plan for its hopeful recruits, beginning with “a free, 16-week coding boot camp, followed by paid ‘apprenticeships’ with the program’s for-profit arm, a software consultancy.” After apprenticeships that sometimes included teaching in the non-profit’s classrooms, graduates “would either go on to salaried jobs at the Mined Minds company, or to a big tech firm such as Oracle.”

The plan came with a guarantee of 100% job placement that Manchin once lauded as “embody[ing] the spirit of West Virginia,” the Times writes. And it proved lucrative for Mined Minds, which by 2016 was “one of the primary beneficiaries of a US$1.5-million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.”

For the Frames, and the other hopefuls who attended their first Mined Mines class in late June 2017, things clouded over very quickly, however. First, though many recruits insist they registered (and quit jobs) on the promise that they would be paidto take the class, they arrived to find that such payment would not be forthcoming. Second, they learned that their main instructor would be Laucher’s brother. (The impression of nepotism would be strengthened considerably when the long-promised term-end coding project turned out to be “the design of a website for a pet bed and breakfast that Ms. Laucher’s mother was opening in Pennsylvania,” The Times says. Earlier on, “Laucher had suggested the project would be something for the community, maybe a gaming app addressing the opioid epidemic” afflicting the region.)

But the trouble didn’t end there. “There was never much of a syllabus; students would be given an assignment and spend the next few days trying to figure it out, mostly by themselves,” the Times recounts. And “the usual answer to questions, multiple students said, was ‘Google it’.”

Already unsettled by suspicions that their teachers were poorly qualified, recruits grew even more uneasy as they learned that “the good, stable jobs promised by the group were not nearly as stable as they appeared,” with “firings and resignations” so routine as to leave several suspecting “that the program couldn’t afford the job guarantee it was advertising.”

And yet, “money woes did not make sense,” reports the Times, given what students saw of the founders’ lifestyle”, which included at least one trip to a tech conference in Lithuania, an office in Chicago’s Trump Tower, “ever-replenishing tequila bottles at the West Virginia headquarters,” and “boozy house parties in Pennsylvania.”

Then came the sobering news from Pennsylvania, “a report that nearly all the graduates of one class had been fired right after being hired as apprentices,” and that the company had been ordered by the state “to cease operations for not having a license to run a school.”

Six months after that first summer class, reports the Times, a group of former students sued Mined Minds for fraud. The case [2] is still before the courts.

In an email to the Times, Laucher insisted she is still committed to the mission of Mined Minds, but that “progress is difficult,” in part because of what she asserts is Appalachia’s deep investment in maintaining a “poverty culture.”

That kind of language angers residents for whom pie-in-the-sky offers topped with heaps of condescension followed by nothing much at all are all-too-familiar fare, writes the Times.

Speaking wearily about his wife and daughter’s experience at the hands of Mined Mines, coal miner Roger Frame told the Times that “they’re coming here promising stuff that they don’t deliver. People do that all the time. They’ve always done it to Appalachians.”

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the ongoing lawsuit, Mined Mines continues to operate, “holding new classes in Logan, another hard-luck coal town in West Virginia.” Several weeks ago, the Times adds, “Ms. Laucher announced on social media that she had been accepted to law school in Chicago.”.