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Why One Lawmaker Sees the Future of Silicon Valley in Appalachia

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. // Ben Margot/AP

The first-term congressman representing the country's most powerful tech giants has a request for the rest of Washington: Visit Appalachia.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., toured eastern Kentucky in the spring to understand if coal country residents would have any interest in learning to code. He was promoting a public-private partnership called TechHire Eastern Kentucky, which pays candidates to learn various coding languages, including JavaScript, and then take paid internships at technology companies with the goal of employment. 

The broader TechHire, an initiative under Barack Obama and spearheaded by former federal chief technology officer and ex-Googler Megan Smith that sought to build a more technologically savvy workforce, appears to be continuing under President Trump.

The lawmaker's district includes Apple, Google and Facebook headquarters. In his first foray into policymaking, he aims to create partnerships that can distribute Silicon Valley's rich concentration of technology jobs across the rest of the nation. 

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Kentucky and many other Appalachian states, stalwarts of the American coal industry, are seeing jobs rapidly disappear, in part because of advances in energy technology and automation. Based on findings from his visit, Khanna told Nextgov Appalachian residents are eager to build new skills and tech companies are often happy to hire them. 

He considers programs like TechHire Eastern Kentucky successful, at least in the early stages, but said he fears the White House's budget proposal doesn't include the investments necessary to sustain the partnership.

For instance, Trump has proposed eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal organization dedicated to revitalizing parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Kentucky, among other states.

 “It’s shocking to me," Khanna said. "The fact that there's a guy in Silicon Valley talking about the need to fund the Appalachian Regional Commission ... and you've got the administration zeroing this stuff out.”

Khanna envisions a world in which tech companies like Google, Apple and Salesforce regularly hire developer talent in Appalachian states. The internet has made it easier to work remotely, and advances in virtual reality could soon allow people to work on manufacturing projects across the country, he said. It's happening gradually, but Khanna said both the public and private sectors need to invest more directly in such programs by creating paid internship and apprenticeship programs to train new potential employees.

"The president who made his reputation on 'The Apprentice' should be out there talking about the apprenticeship programs of the country," he said.

It's essential for executives and politicians alike to "visit and observe for themselves the dynamism and entrepreneurship in other parts of the country," Khanna said. On his tours, Khanna said Appalachian residents communicated a sense of frustration at being stereotyped by candidates and mainstream media outlets as people who refuse to learn new skills to remain employable.

“They're interested in partnering with the Valley, in helping to have a workforce that tech companies and tech entrepreneurs can harness," he said. "They’re interested in having a diverse economy there. They get that we're transitioning from an industrial to a digital economy ... There’s no sense of entitlement. There's a hunger to learn."

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