Jim Ratliff worked for 14 years in the mines of eastern Kentucky, drilling holes and blasting dynamite to expose the coal that has powered Appalachian life for more than a century.
Today, he rolls into an office at 8 a.m., settles into a small metal desk and does something that, until last year, was completely foreign to him: computer coding.
“A lot of people look at us coal miners as uneducated,” said Ratliff, a 38-year-old with a thin goatee and thick arms. “It’s backbreaking work, but there’s engineers and very sophisticated equipment. You work hard and efficiently and that translates right into coding.”
He works for Bit Source now, a Pikeville, Kentucky, startup that’s out to prove there’s life after coal for the thousands of industry veterans who’ve lost their jobs in an unprecedented rout that has already forced five major producers into bankruptcy.
Bit Source has only hired 10 coders, but almost 1,000 responded to its ads as the realization spreads across Appalachia that coal’s heyday is over. What fills its void is a challenge so immense that presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have cited the industry’s woes on the campaign trail.
“We’ve got a lot of high-skilled hillbillies here,” said Rusty Justice, a 57-year-old co-founder of Bit Source. “We want to prove we can run a tech business from the hills of eastern Kentucky.”
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