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The Next Blue-Collar Job Boom: Coding

blue-collar-codingLast week, an article in Wired declared, “The Next Big Blue-Collar Job Is Coding.” Kelly McEvers, a journalist with NPR, interviewed Clive Thompson about his article. Thompson noted that a person doesn’t need to finish a 4-year college education to learn coding: some of the 9-month, intensive “boot camp” training programs have impressive records placing students in jobs.  Meanwhile, even initiatives to recruit coal miners into coding have met with success: coal mining is already a profession that requires a lot of patience (sitting in the same area for 8-10 hours at a time) and working with technology. What if those same individuals learned JavaScript or Python or some other languages used to build apps and websites. This may seem farfetched – but it’s already happening.

A full transcript of the conversation is reproduced below.

KELLY MCEVERS: This week an article on declared that the next blue collar job is coding – like computer languages, making websites and programming apps. The author of the piece is Clive Thompson. He’s a tech writer, and he’s working on a book about how coders think. He joins us from New York. Welcome.


MCEVERS: So one part of your argument is about lifestyle. You say do not picture coders as these, like, Mark Zuckerberg types who are, you know, taking big risks for big rewards. Instead you say we should picture, like, stable straightforward office jobs. Explain that.

THOMPSON: Yeah. There’s this, I guess, popular, almost romantic idea of the coder as this lone hero who’s just sort of sitting there and, you know, frantically bashing out this amazing code that makes this amazing app. But the truth is, an awful lot of programming doesn’t really require or need that type of creativity. It’s more like maintenance or the slow, stable, making sure that a company is moving along, that its software is working.

You know, like your local bank has a login page. And that page is written in HTML and JavaScript. And every few months someone has to make sure that any changes to the way JavaScript works is compliant with them. And that is a – that’s actually a quite intellectually interesting job, but it’s not the type of thing people think about when they think “programmer.”

MCEVERS: So are you saying that a lot of the coding jobs are not actually in Silicon Valley, that they’re out at the local bank and other places across the country?

THOMPSON: Yeah, that’s exactly right. In fact, Silicon Valley itself only employs about maybe 8 percent of the nation’s coders and programmers. The rest are all over the place, every town of any size.

MCEVERS: Your piece talks about education. And I wonder how much education do you need for this kind of work? Do you have to have a four-year college degree?

THOMPSON: Probably not. You know, you could really easily be trained to at least start in on that work with a much shorter community college degree or even one of these “boot camps,” where you leave your job and you spend three to six months very intensively 9 a.m. to 9 in the evening studying and being taught programming. And at the end of it, you are qualified enough to take a junior position. And those programs are growing quite rapidly. And many of them have extremely good hiring rates.

MCEVERS: Because obviously one of the huge issues in the election last year was the changing economy, the loss of so many blue collar jobs over the years.  I’ve spent some time before and during and since the election talking to people in some of these parts of the country, and they’re incredibly skeptical about promising surrounding retraining. They just aren’t seeing it happening. So give me an example of a place where that’s happened and where it’s worked.

THOMPSON: Sure. Well, a really fun example is done in coal country, a guy who goes by the name “Rusty Justice.” He’d been a coal miner involved in mining for 30 years. And he saw all the jobs vanishing. He knew that the demand for coal’s going down. But he also knew that coal miners are in many ways really terrific at the types of things you need to do to be a good programmer. They’re patient. They can sit in one place for 10 hours. You know, that’s what you do when you’re down in a mine. They are accustomed to working with technology. As he told me, coal miners are just tech workers who get dirty.

And so he decided he was going to set up a new company. He was going to hire these coal miners to learn JavaScript and Python and all these languages that you use to make apps and websites. And then he would have a shop that would go out and do work for clients. And it’s been working. In fact, he had a small handful of positions that he got hundreds and hundreds of applications from coal miners who wanted to do this.

MCEVERS: Clive Thompson wrote about coding as blue collar work for Wired. Thanks for coming on.

THOMPSON: Glad to be here.

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