Appalachia is working to revitalise its economy and create 30,000 new jobs by introducing new tech industries to replace its dying coal mining trade. Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) is re-training workers in skills like coding, promoting the establishment of new tech businesses and developing the area’s tourism, healthcare and agriculture industries. The program is supported by the US government through funding and the creation of a border-to-border fibre optic cable that will ensure exceptional broadband coverage across the region, opening up opportunities for remote working. In an area that historically depended on the rapidly declining coal mining industry the program hopes to establish a new blue-collar economy.
Results & Impact
The 2016 SOAR Summit attracted over 1,100 attendees who showcased 141 solutions to unemployment and poverty. SOAR will invest in in K-16 science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics education, developing employer-led training, and networking between the unemployed and businesses offering remote work opportunities. It also hopes to establish shared workspaces for creative and tech industries in the towns.
Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, SOAR-STEM, Interapt, Dream Martin Country, Centre for Rural Development, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky Innovation Network, Operation Pride, Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, Mountain Association for Community Development, Young Professionals of Eastern Kentucky
SOAR emerged from a discussion between local leaders who wanted to create a neutral platform devoted to sharing ideas about the particular challenges faced by the area. The resulting network is based online, with annual summits for face-to-face meetings with other innovators that allow them to share skills and experience. The network has supported and inspired several projects and social startups including Bit Source, a coding company that employs laid-off miners and trains them in essential skills for tech trade. The US Department of Labour finances training of Bit Source Staff. The Kentucky Communications Network Authority supports KentuckyWired, an open-access broadband network built by the newly created Kentucky Communications Network Authority.
Low-income people, unemployed people
Cost & Value
Running since 2013
A community-driven program is working to develop employment opportunities in Appalachia, an area shattered by the decline of the coal mining industry.
Shaping Our Appalachian Region — otherwise known as SOAR — has a bold aim: to create 30,000 jobs in a region that’s facing high levels of deprivation and economic decline. To do that, it’s embarking on an ambitious program of reskilling and training, with the vision of developing a 21st economy grounded in the tech industry.
Appalachia faces serious challenges in today’s changing economy. Unemployment and poverty rates are far higher than the national average — in some areas, unemployment stands at nearly 20% and poverty at 43% — and a higher-than-average number of adults don’t even try to find work. In one County, Harlan, the population dropped by half in 30 years. Across a 27-county stretch of the state, the number of jobs fell by more than 45,000 between 2006 and 2016, a reduction of 20%. It’s estimated that for every job lost in coal mining up to three are shed in associated industries.
To tackle that grim decline, the SOAR project has several focus areas and goals. It’s a network that connects people working for change in the region with ideas, resources and partners that can help them. An annual summit allows businesses, educators, NGOs and government representatives to network and demonstrate solutions.
Key objectives of the SOAR program include investing in K-16 science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics education, developing employer-led training, and networking between the unemployed and businesses offering remote work opportunities. It also hopes to establish shared workspaces for creative and tech industries in the towns.
The role of government is crucial to making SOAR success. Funding from a US Department of Labour grant financed the training of staff at Bit Source, for example. One of the central pillars of the regeneration plan for the project is an ambitious public-private partnership called KentuckyWired, an open-access broadband network built by the newly created Kentucky Communications Network Authority. It’s based on a border-to-border fibre communications cable across the state, which brings Appalachia closer to the economic and political centres on the coasts of the USA, from which it has historically been isolated. In doing so, the cable creates opportunities for participation in the knowledge and tech industries that are booming in bigger cities, and which people in the rust belt often feel unable to access.
In these historically industrial areas, however, resistance to change can be an issue. Many of the workers here were angered by Barack Obama’s drive for clean energy, which they blame for the decline of the coal industry that took their livelihoods with it. Donald Trump’s promise to bring back the coal industry is credited with playing an important part in securing the votes of areas like Appalachia, and many see mining as central to the character of the area. Those behind the project say the political will to develop new industries has been a long time coming.
There are other areas of possible development, too. Tourism in Appalachia might revolve around hiking and exploring nature, or heritage and historic trips. The county also has an established bourbon industry, which some entrepreneurs and businesspeople are keen to develop and grow.