For all the important debates happening right now in the United States, the economy remains at the top of people’s minds. In a recent CNN/ORC poll, respondents listed it as the top issue facing the country.
No matter where you live — be it a suburb of San Jose, the hills of Appalachia, or somewhere in between — our shared goals to have a well-paying job, be able to raise our families, and plan for a secure future are common all throughout the nation. Policies that help people feel more secure about their livelihood and the ability to provide for their families deserve a closer look by Republicans and Democrats alike.
In parts of the United States, the economy is moving from one driven by industry and manufacturing to one driven by software and technology. Such a shift from one type of economic engine to the other does not need to be the origin of political strife. Rather, there must be a mutual acknowledgement that our changing economy should be a point of convergence and bipartisanship between the two political parties.
In that vein, the two of us may be unlikely partners from drastically different parts of the country, but we found common ground this week in the small town of Paintsville, Ky. It is there where we are working to leverage the innovative ideas rooted in Silicon Valley to develop a “Silicon Holler.”
After rapidly losing tens of thousands of jobs in the coal mining and related industries, leaders in rural Eastern Kentucky have cast aside partisan differences to ensure that the region is primed and ready to be a part of the growing digital economy and become a technological hub where high-tech jobs are available and sustainable. On March 13, we came together to join leaders in education, local government, and business, for a first-hand look at how Appalachian Kentucky is preparing coal miners’ families for a more diverse future, not built on coal alone, but on broadband, code, and apps. (Just like the app you may be using right now.)
This workforce development effort is a primary focus of the bipartisan SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) initiative, launched in 2013. SOAR has leveraged public and private funding to retrain the region’s workforce, spur entrepreneurship, invest in a statewide broadband infrastructure, improve tourism and agriculture, advance healthcare access and grow educational opportunities. SOAR’s united mission has also gained support from numerous federal agencies.
The initiative has produced concrete success in leading to jobs. For example, a number of young residents from the region completed a four-month training program on iOS software for Apple and Android software for Google. As a result, more than 34 students now have good paying jobs as mobile software designers in Paintsville, earning a salary of nearly $40,000 a year.
The SOAR program is helping to reenergize Eastern Kentucky’s economy. However, such revitalization strategies should not be limited to a single region. A region strong in technology will open doors for new education and training opportunities, as well as help spur infrastructure investment and job creation. Economists have found that when an area has a large concentration of high-tech jobs, like Silicon Valley and other major innovation hubs, for every one job in tech another four will be created in support of it. This economic multiplier effect is larger than that of U.S. manufacturing. When the local economy embraces tech, more jobs in other sectors and across income levels follow.
In the 20th century, coal miners, steel workers, and automobile factory employees built the foundation of the modern American economy. Our nation owes them a lot.
Unfortunately, the rapid pace of automation and globalization has led to a decline in traditional U.S. manufacturing jobs. As we work to protect these jobs seeped in the American tradition, we must also prepare these communities for the jobs of the future. Those who devoted their lives working in these industries must never feel devalued for their contributions or pessimistic about the prospects for their kids.
We urge our fellow legislators to step outside the marble hallways of Congress and have a similar exchange of ideas and learn from the success and innovation happening in our hometowns. In fact, we look forward to hearing from you. Innovation thrives when we combine resources, share ideas, and invest in the American dream, both in Silicon Valley and in “Silicon Holler.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, a senior Republican, represents the 5th District of Kentucky. Rep. Ro Khanna, a freshman Democrat, represents the 17th District of California in Silicon Valley.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.